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PHP Security: Default Vulnerabilities, Security Omissions and Framing Programmers?

Note: This article was originally published at Planet PHP on 27 August 2012.
Planet PHP


15 (Photo credit: el frijole)

Secure By Design is a simple concept in the security world where software is designed from the ground up to be as secure as possible regardless of whether or not it imposes a disadvantage to the end user. The purpose of this principle is to ensure that users who are not security experts can use the software without necessarily being obliged to jump through hoops to learn how to secure their usage or, much worse, being tempted into ignoring security concerns which expose unaddressed security vulnerabilities due to ignorance, inexperience or laziness. The crux of the principle therefore is to promote trust in the software while, somewhat paradoxically, avoiding too much complexity for the end user.

Odd though it may seem, this principle explains some of PHP's greatest security weaknesses. PHP does not explicitly use Secure By Design as a guiding principle when executing features. I'm sure its in the back of developers' minds just as I'm sure it has influenced many if their design decisions, however there are issues when you consider how PHP has influenced the security practices of PHP programmers.

The result of not following Secure By Design is that all applications and libraries written in PHP can inherit a number of security vulnerabilities, hereafter referred to as aoBy-Default Vulnerabilitiesa. It also means that defending against key types of attacks is undermined by PHP not offering sufficient native functionality and I'll refer to these as aoFlawed Assumptionsa. Combining the two sets of shortcomings, we can establish PHP as existing in an environment where security is being compromised by delegating too much security responsibility to end programmers.

This is the focus of the argument I make in this article: Responsibility. When an application is designed and built only to fall victim to a by-default vulnerability inherited from PHP or due to user-land defenses based on flawed assumptions about what PHP offers in terms of security defenses, who bears the responsibility? Pointing the finger at the programmer isn't wrong but it also doesn't tell the whole story, and neither will it improve the security environment for other programmers. At some point, PHP needs to be held accountable for security issues that it has a direct influence on though its settings, its default function parameters, its documentation and its lack thereof. And, at that point, questions need to be asked as to when the blurry line between PHP's default behaviour and a security vulnerability sharpens into focus.

Please read the rest of my article hosted on readthedocs.org.