The recent announcement of Drupal SA-CORE-2014-005 caused a global scramble amongst Drupal site owners, developers and hosting providers to patch their sites and protect themselves from the vulnerability. Unfortunate site owners who weren’t quick enough were left with a site audit to ensure all traces of any successful attacks were removed from their environments.

Firstly, hats off to the Drupal Security Team, Core release co-ordinators and the Drupal community in general for a rapid, considered and clear response to the issue. The early warning that a security release was coming was well stated enough to make it clear to many that it would be a major issue. The normal release time was brought forward to a more suitable timeslot to ensure the maximum audience saw it early, and the post-release guidance, FAQs and blog posts covered all aspects from how to patch, what to do if your site had been hacked, and what to look out for to indicate if you had been affected. A follow up public service announcement PSA-2014-003 was published drawing further attention to the risks to unpatched sites and offering further guidance.

Secondly, excellent work from Sektion Eins, the penetration testing experts who detected the vulnerability. This was a defect that has existed for many years, and many organisations will have run penetration tests that haven’t previously detected it. Having been creative enough to find the vulnerability, it was then reported and managed responsibly, which should be praised.

Now, I don’t want to focus on SA-CORE-2014-005 any further, but instead I want to talk about some ways we can protect our Drupal sites and minimise our exposure to vulnerabilities. Whilst bugs will always happen (whether security or functional), there are steps we can all take to mitigate our exposure and respond quickly to incidents.

Early warning systems

The best cure is prevention, and the next best is to catch it early. There are lots of ways to keep up to date with what is going on in Drupal security:

  • The Drupal Security pages contain the most recent core, contrib and public service announcements for Drupal and include RSS feeds
  • Sign up for the Security Announcements mailing list (login to Drupal.org, go to your user profile page and subscribe to the “Security announcements” on the Edit » My newsletters tab)
  • Follow @drupalsecurity on Twitter

All three of these routes will ensure you’re on the quickest possible route to hearing about new security releases. It then becomes quick and easy to review the latest threats, decide if you’re vulnerable (by reviewing the mitigations - a lot of vulnerabilities depend on elevated roles or other mitigations, and these will be clearly described on each Security Advisory), and how quickly you ought to upgrade your core installation or other modules.

It’s also worth having the Update module enabled in your dev environment to phone home and check if there are updates for any of your modules available - however if like me you only login to some sites occasionally then you’ll want a backup strategy for keeping you informed.

It should then become almost ritual that for each alert you:

  • Determine if your core version is affected
  • Determine if you use the contributed module reported as affected
  • Reviewing any mitigations (vulnerability requiring elevated permissions etc) that may keep you safe from the vulnerability and reduce the urgency of patching/upgrading
  • For any urgent updates, apply as soon as practically possible
  • For any non-urgent updates, apply to normal dev/test/release cycle and deploy in your next release slot

Don’t leave the back door open

The great thing about Drupal is the wide range of contributed modules that you can use to kickstart your development and re-use functionality that other people have already built for you. However, this comes with its own risks - as you’re effectively installing code that you’ve not written and so have no guarantees of how secure it may be.

With this in mind, it’s essential to review the modules you download, rather than just installing them right-away. Just as we check if modules contain any potential performance gotchas, we also look to see if there are any obvious security flaws - use of $_GET or $_POST variables in templates, data directly concatenated into SQL queries, no roles or permissions defined, all gives clues, and we can use Drupal secure coding guidelines, and awareness of the OWASP Top 10, to inform our reviews.

To some degree, these checks can be automated by running things like Coder, which includes some basic security checks and has some good proposals to add more security sniffs. Modules like Security Review can also check for some easy-to-make mistakes which may render your site insecure - and are invaluable, particularly if you’re new to site security. However, automated checks are only as good as the information they’re fed with, so there is no substitute for getting in and reading the code - you were going to look to see how it worked anyway, right?

Remember - if you do spot any security flaws in Drupal Core or Contrib, don’t raise issues in the public issue queues, make sure you follow the process to report a security issue to the security team, so that it can be fixed in private and released before the vulnerability is made public.

Constant vigilance

It’s not just Drupal that can be exposed to vulnerabilities such as these, PHP itself has had its share over the years, and realistically no large body of code is going to go its entire life without some vulnerabilities creeping in. There are also many more people trying to find vulnerabilities to take advantage of than there are people trying to fix them.

This means keeping your entire platform secure becomes a constant activity, so a reliable and repeatable test and release cycle becomes essential - if pulling down the latest updates and deploying them takes a significant amount of time, the odds are that you’ll get lazy and skip an udpate or two. This soon becomes the security guys nightmare as sites, services and platforms become more out of date and more vulnerable to attack.

Watch the watchman

All the attention paid to Core and Contrib security updates is very valuable, but it becomes worthless if you don’t give the same care to the code you and your team write in custom modules. An awareness of how to follow Drupal best practices to write secure code is an essential part of the training and education of any good Drupal developer. Fortunately Drupal provides some excellent abstraction layers to remove some of the thinking on these topics, so make sure you use the database layer correctly, handle text securely, and create forms in a safe way, as well as all the other best practice.

It’s also well worth commissioning penetration tests from external specialists to test your implementation and validate that it is secure. We use the expertise of these companies regularly, and rotate through a list of preferred companies to ensure that we’re constantly getting fresh eyes on the solutions, and varied approaches to testing, so as to maximise the chances of finding issues. The tests often prove their worth, and whilst every developer hates having defects raised, we’d all much rather the security issue be in a test environment than in production!

Reading list

To finish, here are some excellent resources to keep up to date with best practice approaches to keeping your Drupal installation secure:

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