Speaking at AppSec USA 2015

It’s always good to step outside of your usual bubble and try something new every once and a while. I recently took this step and submitted for the AppSec USA 2015 conference happening in San Francisco on September. My topic? PHP security, naturally but it’s to a much more diverse audience. At PHP conferences its easy to take a lot of things for granted. You’re able to assume that most of the people in the room are developers and understand what PHP’s all about and have at least a little experience with it. At AppSec I don’t really have that guarantee so it’ll be interesting to see how it turns out.

Here’s my prospectus for those that are interested:

PHP Security, Redefined

Let’s be honest, PHP has had a rocky history with security. Over the years the language has been highly criticized for it’s lack of a focus on security and secure development practices. In more recent years, however, a resurgence has happened in the language and community, bringing secure development back into focus. With PHP 7 on the horizon, the language is making even more strides to improve some of its wayward ways of the past and reinvent itself. I’ll share practical code examples, tools, libraries and best practices that are making it easier than ever to keep PHP applications safe.

Come along with me as I guide you through both the language improvements and community encouragement making PHP a more secure place.

I’m hoping that, while the talk is more specifically about PHP security, that it will also be a good platform to help some in the information security community shatter some of their own misconceptions about PHP (ones that are probably stuck in the late PHP 4 to early PHP 5 days). I’m excited to get to talk about PHP7 too which, if all goes well, should be in its final stages by the time the conference rolls around in September.

When I got the acceptance email, I felt that same feeling down in the pit of my stomach I felt when I first was accepted to php[tek] so many years ago. Now it’s a good feeling, though – one that’s more excitement than worry, more encouragement than stress.

Social Security

Let me preface this by saying I think that sharing knowledge and experiences is a great thing. I love that there’s so many tutorials out there from people showing good practices in security and things they’ve learned along the way. Unfortunately, this is the same place where I see a major downfall. This kind of “social security” is a problem and it needs fixing so secure application development can really thrive.

Technology is great, especially PHP. Sure, there’ll be haters out there and they’ll throw stones at the glass house that is PHP hoping to break down the walls and push it off away from the public eye and into the “Not A Real Language” world. Fortunately, this will never happen especially with more recent improvements to the language and its consistent popularity among web developers. PHP is both easy to pick up but difficult to master, especially when it comes to the security of the applications written with it. Along with this low barrier for entry comes people sharing things either in tutorials or just articles that they’ve found to be useful or think is a good practice. The web is littered with articles like these, some being a bit more factual than others. *This is where the real problem is.*

Well-meaning developers post tutorials about things like preventing XSS with just htmlspecialchars or only fixing SQL injection with prepared statements and bound parameters. While these are good practices in themselves, they’re not the only thing that needs to be done to prevent these issues. Security is a complicated subject and there’s no one answer to any problem. Usually a robust solution involves multiple layers (defense in depth anyone?) to ensure the problem doesn’t pop up again or in another location. Even worse are the numerous older articles posted around the internet that have bad or old information. Sadly I see some of these that are *years* old being recommended as good resources to learn from.

I see two kinds of resources out there:

  • Those that are posts from individuals or groups and are wholly maintained by them
  • community resources such as the OWASP wiki

I’ve done some picking on OWASP in the past about the quality of their PHP materials and what seems to be their general feel around PHP and PHP-centric security. This time, though, I don’t want to talk as much about their content itself but about the process they follow for generating that content.

I appreciate what OWASP is going for application security, I really do, but I think the “everyone can edit” mentality of their content is very flawed. I know it’s just not feasible for a single organization largely made up of volunteers to manage and audit all of the content on their site. I get that, I really do, but when I see people referring to PHP resources that haven’t been updated since 2006 or 2007 it makes me cringe. And, because of the visibility of the group, those are the resources people find and recommend not knowing any different.

I think this is the crux of my opinion – having resources where anyone can contribute and not auditing those resources is a “Bad Thing” in my book. Unfortunately, in the case of the masses of tutorials posted out on the web, there’s not much that can be done about that. Those are there to stay and search engines will continue to ensure they show in results regardless of their quality or relevance to the current state of things.

I’m not saying I want people to stop contributing here, I just think there needs to be a balance. There’s a lot of regurgitation of the same kinds of advice out there (“let’s rehash the Top 10 again…”) but there’s also a lot of more innovative content that gets deeper into PHP security matters beyond just the prevention of the most common issues. In my experience, PHP developers are becoming more and more savvy about the security of their applications (even if it is a “negative deliverable” so to speak) and require tips and techniques beyond these simple ten point checklists.

Unfortunately, there’s just not a good answer here. As long as the web continues to be a free for all in terms of posting content developers will keep posting the same things or they’ll post bad suggestions (or ones that just don’t make any sense). The only thing I can think to do is to offer advice to those doing research or reading through PHP security content to ensure they’re getting the best information they can:

  1. Check the article date. If it’s older than 9-12 months, close the tab and move on. That’s not content you need to be reading.
  2. If the content talks about “preventing the most common vulnerabilities” in PHP applications, chances are it’s just another Top 10 article. If you know those already, skip it.
  3. Favor articles with links from things other than search engine results. If you come across an article from a recommendation on another non-linkbait site chances are the content is at least mildly useful.
  4. Consider the source. Do a little research on the author, if they don’t have much of a presence on the web around PHP-related things either take the advice with a large grain of salt or move on.
  5. Look for things that are well-written. Chances are if something is easy to understand or provides plenty of technical detail (and less hand waving “do this not that”) you’ve found something worth reading through.

These are just guidelines, obviously. Ultimately it’s up to your best judgement and research skills to determine the validity of the content and if it applies to your situation.

Developer Security Outreach

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to try to bring the security and development communities together, most specifically for PHP (see these two posts for more on that). PHP has a long standing reputation for being an insecure language that it’s had to overcome. I like to think that evidence in more recent years is helping to dissuade that, but it’s an uphill battle. Anyway, that’s not what I’m hear to talk about. True to the title of the post, I want to talk about developer outreach as it relates to security and secure development practices.

While comments were made on my two previous post about the relationship going both ways, I want to focus in on things from the perspective of the organization with the bulk of the knowledge – the application security group/company. Yes, it’s good for developers to contribute back to shared resources so both parties can benefit, but with so many new developers coming to the language every day, I see a real need for engagement. There are a lot of groups and individuals out there on the security side that specialize in training and resources to help developers write their code more securely. They provide training classes and white papers on new technologies that can be used to get the ideas across, but usually only in a limited fashion. They write blog posts about the latest exploits and vulnerabilities or even speak at conferences with case studies and their own real-world experience in the world of application security.

So, take a step back – do you see a problem with this model? Most of these things I’ve listed involve talking at the developers and not with them. Sure, some of the training classes are more hands-on and can be much more effective at getting the speaker’s ideas across. However, these kinds of resources are mostly provided if requested or actively sought out by the developer. There’s a wealth of information out there about securing applications, even PHP ones, that’s tucked away and only shown when the right Google search is performed.

Is there a solution? In thinking about it some this morning, I see a pretty obvious one – developer outreach. I’ve mentioned this same idea before in another post, but that one was more targeted towards the OWASP group and the services/resources it provides. It still surprises me when I ask in my sessions at PHP-related conference how many people have heard of OWASP and some hands go up but a lot don’t. Likewise, there’s a lot of companies out there that provide application security training (such as the Denim Group, WhiteHat Security or even SANS) but those are still presented as passive resources. Developers, by their nature, are notoriously lazy. They try to find the most efficient, most robust solutions to problems. How much would they benefit from someone from the Denim group reaching out to them or even just the PHP community as a whole and sharing what they have to offer.

Am I suggesting they hop on the various community mailing lists and start spamming them with ads for their training courses? Of course not. Here’s what I am proposing:

If you provide training, resources or any other kind of resources that developers could benefit from to create more secure applications, find an advocate (or a few) in the community of your choice and request their help to get the word out. I’d even go so far as to suggest having someone dedicated to working with communities, maybe even different people for different communities. This person should be dedicated to not only sharing what kind of things the company/group has to offer the developer community but to also act as a guide to keep them on the right path.

There’s a security subculture in just about every language out there. The key for those with the security knowledge and resources to do is to tap into it. Break into the community with a sense of humility, an open mind to learn about its members and a passion for teaching and sharing knowledge on a personal level.


OWASP, A PHP Ostrich?

As a member of the PHP community for the last 10+ years, I’ve seen the topic of security come and go. PHP’s always had a bad reputation for being an insecure language and, honestly, that’s a valid point to make. It’s PHP’s own low barrier for entry and lack of a cohesive plan that’s made it such an “interesting” language to use over the years. I’ve also had a foot in the security community for the past few years and I’ve seen an interesting disconnect between it and the world of PHP.

I constantly see articles talking about how insecure PHP is compared to other languages and how no one should be using PHP if they’re concerned about protecting their users and data. As such, PHP seems to have been mostly dismissed by the security community as a sort of “toy language” that’s not suitable for the enterprise like Java or .NET are. I can’t tell you how many companies I’ve seen looking for people to fill application security analyst roles that only want Java or .NET experience. PHP makes up such a small part of their market that they don’t even bother looking. This is very surprising considering how much of the web is running on PHP (based on statistics, take that how you’d like).

This focus on the .NET and Java worlds has bled through to other parts of the security community too. Take the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) group as an example. If you’re a member (I am) or even just a casual reader of the information they have to offer, there’s a very clear bias towards these two languages. There’s been a few initiatives they’ve started over the years to try to enhance the PHP-related information they provide, but sadly a good bit of it is falling out of date and isn’t as useful as it once was. Things like the PHP Security Cheat Sheet  have had a few additions and wording changes, but even then there’s quite a bit of information that’s just missing from its content.

There’s something that concerns me more than just incomplete content on a wiki page, though. I was looking through some of the PHP security libraries that are being worked on by OWASP members (such as phpsec) and noticed something interesting. There is a lot of “Not Invented Here” going on there. Sure, PHP developers are guilty of this too, but it seems this hints at a larger point: is the OWASP group doing more harm than good by not embracing some of the well-known security tools that exist outside of their own organization? In fact, the only PHP library the OWASP group has on Packagist is their RBAC (role-based access control) tool that seems to ignore standards like PSR-4 (or even PSR-0) for autoloading, separation of concerns and good design practices that have become well-used in the PHP community in recent years.

So, what’s my point in all of this? I think the OWASP project can do better, honestly. They’re users of the PHP language but, with a few exceptions, don’t seem to be a part of the PHP community. They almost have their head in the sand when it comes to some of the practices that have come to define the language and community around it. It feels like PHP is an after-through on most of their initiatives and that there’s not much reaching out to the PHP community as a whole to find reusable packages that fit their needs, are more robust, well tested and proven.

The security community inside PHP is growing up and I think having large projects like OWASP understand it and be a part of it can help the news of this renaissance spread even further. PHP developers, more than ever, need as much up-to-date information and tools to help protect their applications. Consider this a call out to both fellow OWASP members and PHP developers as a whole to get involved in the wider security community, share these new advancements and openly share ideas across these borders.

Shatter those old conceptions of what PHP was and replace them with new techniques, practices and knowledge across communities. Only then can we help the wider web understand that PHP isn’t what it once was.

Some “Why Won’t Solar Work” Tips

With more and more people installing and using Solar all the time, theres some questions that get asked quite a bit. I wanted to help with some of those questions by providing some simple answers here. Here we go…

  • Tip #1 – Be sure that you have your App directory correctly set in the configuration file. If you don’t add it to your front controller Classes setting, Solar has no idea where to find it.
  • Tip #2 – Class names on the controllers are important! Be sure it follows the directory tree like Project_App_Controller. Also be sure you’re extending the right thing. I usually use a Base controller/setup to provide an overarching “global” place to put things (like a layout) and extend that, so it’s usually “extends Project_App_Base”
  • Tip #3 – You can change the values that the Solar_Form login functionality uses to trigger the automagic login process by setting it in the adapter for your authentication object (like a Solar_Auth_Adapter_Sql) via the process_login and process_logout values.
  • Tip #4 – Be sure to include everything you need to get to “magically” through Solar in the set_include_path in the front controller. For example, you can add in another directory with external libraries so that in your application, you can just call it and let the __autoload handle it.
  • Tip #5 – You might get some complaints from Solar about not having a “sql” object it can work with. I good way to handle this is to check in your _setup function of your controllers to see if there’s one registered. If not, make one with a factory call and register it for the framework’s use: Solar_Registry::set(‘sql’, Solar::factory(‘Solar_Sql’));