In today’s digital world, having a thriving, dynamic, and compelling web presence is everything. Websites are the new shopfront, and filling one’s display space with offerings and information that customers find compelling and enticing is as important now as it has ever been. Websites themselves are perfectly suited to this role, in that they are scalable and adaptable solutions that can be updated to track developments within a specific target market. At the same time, however, websites can be prohibitively difficult to develop, maintain, and improve without the use of an interface that manages the basic infrastructure of a website. Content Management Systems (CMS) exist to perform this function and allow a website administrator to seamlessly update and modify the content on their website without going through the laborious and technical process of modifying a website’s source code. Content Management Systems are powerful tools that are used by web developers and technically uninitiated alike in order to manage a website’s content offerings. The immense value that they provide to website administrators of all stripes is reflected in their popularity: over 43% of websites on the internet are powered by a single CMS, WordPress. In other words, over a third of the total sites on the internet have been developed using a single framework.
Unfortunately, this level of popularity has led to it being a target for hackers and other malicious actors on the internet. In today’s world of high-profile hacks and ransomware attacks, Content Management Systems, and in particular WordPress, have come under scrutiny from cybersecurity professionals and web developers alike. Thankfully, however, WordPress possesses a set of tools, capabilities, and competencies that allow us to build with it for our clients with confidence. The vast majority of malicious hacking attempts are automated, large-scale intrusions that target known vulnerabilities across the web ecosystem. While casting a wide net in this way tends to offer hackers large returns, it also means that such attacks can be predicted and prevented by staying on top of a set of security best practices.
In this article, we will look at CMS security, focusing specifically on our platform of choice, WordPress. After summarizing the current WordPress security landscape, we will speak about some of the common ways hackers attack websites, and then detail the set of security best practices that experts have devised to protect WordPress sites from these types of attacks. Following this, we will conclude by presenting some of the ways that Studio Vi can help you go the extra mile when it comes to WordPress security.
Is WordPress Vulnerable?
Careful analysis of the WordPress security landscape is a complicated thing to do. On the one hand, Wordfence, an organization that works to improve WordPress security across the entire internet ecosystem, estimates that its firewall blocked over 86 billion WordPress password attacks in the first half of 2021. On the other, WordPress sites that are hacked are overwhelmingly those whose administrators are not diligent in maintaining the software and who do not follow security best practices. Therefore, when we ask the question ‘Is WordPress secure?’, we have to be diligent in our appraisal of the interface. Careful analysis of the content management system reveals that sites properly built with the technology are far more resilient against the threat of hacking than they might first appear.
We said earlier that WordPress is an incredibly popular website development tool. It powers everything from personal blogs to government and corporate websites. The White House website, Microsoft News, and Vogue are all built with the CMS. WordPress’s popularity and ubiquity stem from its nature as a piece of software: WordPress is open-source, freely available, and easily modifiable, and has existed in some form for the past two decades. WordPress has therefore been the go-to tool for web development for much of the life of the modern internet. These factors are both a blessing and a curse for WordPress. On the one hand, its open-source nature allows developers from across the world to collaborate and continuously develop and improve the software and its related applications. On the other, that same de-centralized and open-source nature means that anyone can view the underlying source code of the technology, and crucially, attempt to discover ways to exploit it. While autonomy is an important thing, the scale of WordPress’s application makes it exceedingly difficult (if not impossible) to ensure that WordPress websites are developed and maintained according to best security practices. Similarly, it is very difficult to verify that the plethora of WordPress add-ons and plugins are up-to-date and free of vulnerability.
Fortunately, we feel that WordPress is a resilient technology whose adaptability and flexibility make it strong enough to evolve in tandem with a client’s web security needs. The technology’s open-source nature allows its developers to keep up with the changing internet security landscape and ensures that the most contemporary version of WordPress is both secure and safe for use. We should point out, however, that special emphasis must be placed on the phrase most contemporary. While WordPress is a secure platform fit for the needs of the majority of web developers and site administrators, that security depends on developers and administrators following a set of security best practices designed to eliminate any known WordPress vulnerabilities on a particular site. While ‘WordPress security best practices’ may seem a scary phrase, securing a WordPress site can often be as simple as keeping WordPress up-to-date, using hard-to-crack passwords, and deploying certain WordPress security plugins. Though we will dive deeper into what exactly these WordPress security best practices are in subsequent sections, for now, it is important to point out that WordPress is a secure content management system, provided that those who operate it remain aware of best-practice and are diligent about making changes to a WordPress site when vulnerabilities are discovered.
The Threat of a Malicious Attack
Before speaking about ‘WordPress security best practices’, we think it would be illuminating to speak more extensively about hackers and the ways that they might try to exploit security vulnerabilities on a poorly-maintained site. Important to point out is the fact that hackers most often target websites with sensitive data: credit card information, government communications, and health records are bread and butter for malicious actors on the internet. This means that web administrators who deal with this type of data must be aware of the vulnerability that this can potentially bring.
Hackers can try to steal this data in a number of ways:
- Backdoor attacks: The most common form of a hacking attack on the internet. Hackers employing this method use outdated software (or malicious programs masquerading as software) to bypass a website’s security and gain root access to a site in its entirety. While this type of attack can have serious consequences for a digital business, it, fortunately, is relatively easy to detect using dedicated and freely-available web tools like Sitecheck.com.
- SQL injections: An attack where hackers seek to inject malicious code into a website through user inputs, with the hope that such malicious code will grant them access to confidential information stored in a website’s database. SQL injections are a cybersecurity problem that extends far beyond WordPress – over 143 million American customers had their personal data stolen during the 2017 Equifax. The fact that such a monumental hack could have been prevented by following the most rudimentary of precautions (Equifax was aware of basic sql vulnerabilities in its database for over six months and failed to act) highlights the importance of security best practices for any site.
- Denial of Service (DoS) attacks: An attack that attempts to flood a website with traffic and take advantage of vulnerabilities within its operating memory. This family of attacks (that include larger more complex versions – known as Distributed Denial of Service attacks [D-Dos]) are relatively well known to the general public. Github, the Playstation Network, and even the entirety of Amazon Web Services (and with it over half of the internet) have been taken offline by Denial of Service attacks, and such attacks pose a significant security threat to the online business. While it is unfortunately impossible to protect yourself perfectly from a D-DoS attack, many websites and CMS platforms allow for the installation of security plugins that can defend against such an attack. Both Sucuri and Cloudflare offer D-DoS protection software, with Sucuri, in particular, being developed primarily for use with WordPress.
WordPress Security Best Practices
You might at this stage be wondering: what exactly are these best practices? While it will be difficult to capture all of these practices comprehensively in the space that we have left, we can say in broad strokes that WordPress security best practices encompass a set of techniques and strategies that web developers and administrators alike use to ensure that a WordPress site is as resilient as possible in the face of a malicious attack. These strategies can at times be exceedingly simple. For example, developing smart and hard-to-crack passwords is an exponentially effective WordPress security strategy. Hackers live for websites secured with common passwords, and you would be shocked by the number of influential websites that are secured with faulty passwords. In one of last year’s most flagrant hacks, American IT infrastructure firm SolarWinds was breached when attackers obtained a key internal password: solarwinds123. The fact that such a simple password let hackers steal the data of over 30,000 firms and agencies underlines both the importance of strong passwords and the ease with which password attacks can be avoided.
Users, administrators, and developers alike can also secure WordPress sites by ensuring that they are using the latest version of WordPress and choosing a secure host server. As WordPress has a constantly evolving security architecture, it is essential that you ensure your software and hosting services are as up to date as possible. Doing so allows you to easily and seamlessly integrate the work of WordPress security experts into your site, making your site more resilient and less vulnerable to attacks in the process. All of these strategies, which are simple and easy to execute, are tried and proven security strategies that go a long way towards warding against a potential WordPress attack.
Looking at more complex security practices, web developers who build with WordPress (as we do) seek to build security into the site itself by disabling key vectors of common WordPress attacks (faulty or outdated PHP installations, XML-RPC, misconfigured HTTPS elements). These techniques, in addition to other more technical website construction methods, allow us to build in WordPress for our clients with confidence. It is important to point out, however, that maintenance is a crucial part of the WordPress security toolkit. As we detailed earlier, WordPress is a platform that is continuously changing in order to meet the demands of an ever-transformative internet security landscape. New hacks, vectors of attack, and vulnerabilities within WordPress are discovered and rectified on a continual basis. While this vibrant security ecosystem is ultimately a boon for all WordPress users, from the White House to the smallest of businesses, its evolving nature requires a diligent eye to keep on top.
WordPress Security: Going the Extra Mile
We have so far laid out the WordPress security landscape and some of the techniques one can use to enhance a WordPress site’s resiliency. While the majority of these techniques have been those that both a professional and a non-technical user could implement, oftentimes our clients require an additional layer of confidence in the security of their site. As a result, Studio Vi is prepared to help you go the extra mile with your WordPress security, through the implementation of a number of security strategies that we have identified as most crucial to the contemporary security landscape. For a start, web plugins like the previously mentioned Sucuri offer a broad array of security tools that can be used to personalize a website to a client’s particular security preferences. We also work to tailor a website’s specific SSL certificate to a client’s needs. Different businesses with different data protection requirements often employ different SSL’s, and we are prepared to integrate these needs into a specific, tailored solution. Additionally, we build our websites with industry-standard security headers designed to mitigate against the threat of malicious software injections. As a final strategy, we also continually monitor our site for vulnerabilities using site-checking software. Doing so allows us to provide our clients with continual maintenance and notify them of novel security events and threats.
WordPress is, at its core, an effective and dynamic content management system that sits at the heart of contemporary web development. WordPress powers over 40% of sites on the internet, and will continue to be used by both professional and homebrew web developers well into the future. Unfortunately, WordPress’s popularity has attracted the attention of some malicious actors on the internet. This should not scare anyone away from WordPress. WordPress is a secure CMS solution that when used in line with WordPress Security Best Practices can be made resilient against all but the most sophisticated cybersecurity intrusions. These practices can be used by WordPress administrators and developers of all stripes, and prove the overall security of the WordPress platform. Moreover, these practices can be augmented and strengthened by a set of further security modifications that Studio Vi is both qualified and eager to implement for the interested client.
With Vidar’s broad experience with design and usability, he is responsible for strategising the use of digital design within Studio Vi.