(click image for larger view) If I wrote a Security 101 story in light of this news — outdated WordPress sites are used to launch malicious attacks on other websites — it would go something like this: Use strong passwords. Stay current on software updates and patches. Educate employees on security risks and fundamentals. Use anti-malware tools and other technologies. Wash, rinse, repeat.
You’d probably read that story, roll your eyes and mutter: “Duh, tell me something I don’t already know.”
Yet here we are: The world’s most popular publishing platform by a considerable margin — WordPress powers 70 million sites and counting — moonlights as an effective tool for hackers and crooks, this time fueling distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. These aren’t abandoned cat blogs, either. Sites published out of institutions like MIT, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Penn State were among the recently breached.
It’s not WordPress’s fault; it’s ours. We love our easy-to-use, readily available — and often low or no-cost — digital tools. They make it easier to launch a blog, start or run a business, stay in touch, or manage a virtual office. They apparently make it easier to be lazy about information security, too.
[ The iPhone’s fingerprint reader is easy to scam. What’s the lesson? Read Apple Fingerprint Hack: A Great Reminder. ]
As InformationWeek’s Mathew Schwartz noted: “Many WordPress administrators fail to keep their software updated or follow security best practices, such as choosing unique user names and strong passwords for WordPress admin accounts. As a result, numerous WordPress sites sporting known vulnerabilities — or ‘admin’ as the admin account name — remain sitting ducks for automated attacks.”
One recent analysis of the 40,000-plus most popular WordPress sites found that 73% of installations run on a version with known vulnerabilities discoverable by automated toolkits.
Naked Security blogger Mark Stockley pointed out some potential flaws in that report’s methodology, such as failing to account for Web application firewalls or other security tools. He also noted why the 73% figure might actually underreport the risks: The analysis didn’t account for outdated plug-ins or weak passwords, both of which pose their own rash of security vulnerabilities. If 73% is even in the ballpark, though — Stockley, for one, suggested it probably is — that’s an alarming stat that defies one of the go-to basics of online security: Stay current on software.
This isn’t just a WordPress problem; it’s just a problem. The widespread use of Windows, Adobe and Java make them fat targets, too, and laggard users that don’t stay current put themselves at regular risk. The rise of social and mobile platforms have quickly thrust Facebook, Twitter, Android and others into the crosshairs as well.
The battle-tested IT pro might say: “Hey, I know all this. It’s not my fault. It’s the end users.” There’s some truth in that, especially in the bring-your-own age. It’s also a copout. Your users aren’t listening? Make them listen. Start with the whales: If your company publishes a WordPress site, is it running the current version?
But you’re right, it’s not necessarily IT’s fault. Lax security is our fault. We’ve grown complacent. “Online security” sounds like something that should be someone else’s job. It’s not. Security is everyone’s responsibility, yet we continue to use birthdates for passwords (and then reuse them across everything from email to banking to the corporate network). Our favorite sites roll out two-factor authentication but we don’t enable it. We ignore software updates. We have no idea which apps we’ve granted access to our social media accounts and mobile devices. We’re simply not making crooks and scammers work hard enough.
A good while back, a security researcher told me that the second a business sets foot online — and certainly once its employees begin launching WordPress blogs, Twitter feeds, and other common platforms on the company’s behalf — it has a “moral responsibility” to protect customer information and other assets. I recall at the time thinking that sounded a tad heavy-handed. Who needs philosophy when we have common sense? In retrospect, “moral responsibility” might not be heavy-handed enough.
The so-called bad guys will always exist. But do we have to make it so darn easy for them to win?
When IT security is a focal point of the State of the Union address, government IT pros had better take notice. Foreign adversaries are “seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions and our air traffic control systems,” the president warned in February. The Next Steps In Data Center Security report explains how federal government data centers are at the center of this discussion. (Free registration required.)