10.8. PHP

SecureReality has put out a very interesting paper titled ``A Study In Scarlet - Exploiting Common Vulnerabilities in PHP'' [Clowes 2001], which discusses some of the problems in writing secure programs in PHP, particularly in versions before PHP 4.1.0. Clowes concludes that ``it is very hard to write a secure PHP application (in the default configuration of PHP), even if you try''.

Granted, there are security issues in any language, but one particular issue stands out in older versions of PHP that arguably makes older PHP versions less secure than most languages: the way it loads data into its namespace. By default, in PHP (versions 4.1.0 and lower) all environment variables and values sent to PHP over the web are automatically loaded into the same namespace (global variables) that normal variables are loaded into - so attackers can set arbitrary variables to arbitrary values, which keep their values unless explicitly reset by a PHP program. In addition, PHP automatically creates variables with a default value when they're first requested, so it's common for PHP programs to not initialize variables. If you forget to set a variable, PHP can report it, but by default PHP won't - and note that this simply an error report, it won't stop an attacker who finds an unusual way to cause it. Thus, by default PHP allows an attacker to completely control the values of all variables in a program unless the program takes special care to override the attacker. Once the program takes over, it can reset these variables, but failing to reset any variable (even one not obvious) might open a vulnerability in the PHP program.

For example, the following PHP program (an example from Clowes) intends to only let those who know the password to get some important information, but an attacker can set ``auth'' in their web browser and subvert the authorization check:
  if ($pass == "hello")
   $auth = 1;
  if ($auth == 1)
   echo "some important information";

I and many others have complained about this particularly dangerous problem; it's particularly a problem because PHP is widely used. A language that's supposed to be easy to use better make it easy to write secure programs in, after all. It's possible to disable this misfeature in PHP by turning the setting ``register_globals'' to ``off'', but by default PHP versions up through 4.1.0 default set this to ``on'' and PHP before 4.1.0 is harder to use with register_globals off. The PHP developers warned in their PHP 4.1.0 announcenment that ``as of the next semi-major version of PHP, new installations of PHP will default to having register_globals set to off.'' This has now happened; as of PHP version 4.2.0, External variables (from the environment, the HTTP request, cookies or the web server) are no longer registered in the global scope by default. The preferred method of accessing these external variables is by using the new Superglobal arrays, introduced in PHP 4.1.0.

PHP with ``register_globals'' set to ``on'' is a dangerous choice for nontrivial programs - it's just too easy to write insecure programs. However, once ``register_globals'' is set to ``off'', PHP is quite a reasonable language for development.

The secure default should include setting ``register_globals'' to ``off'', and also including several functions to make it much easier for users to specify and limit the input they'll accept from external sources. Then web servers (such as Apache) could separately configure this secure PHP installation. Routines could be placed in the PHP library to make it easy for users to list the input variables they want to accept; some functions could check the patterns these variables must have and/or the type that the variable must be coerced to. In my opinion, PHP is a bad choice for secure web development if you set register_globals on.

As I suggested in earlier versions of this book, PHP has been trivially modified to become a reasonable choice for secure web development. However, note that PHP doesn't have a particularly good security vulnerability track record (e.g., register_globals, a file upload problem, and a format string problem in the error reporting library); I believe that security issues were not considered sufficiently in early editions of PHP; I also think that the PHP developers are now emphasizing security and that these security issues are finally getting worked out. One evidence is the major change that the PHP developers have made to get turn off register_globals; this had a significant impact on PHP users, and their willingness to make this change is a good sign. Unfortunately, it's not yet clear how secure PHP really is; PHP just hasn't had much of a track record now that the developers of PHP are examining it seriously for security issues. Hopefully this will become clear quickly.

If you've decided to use PHP, here are some of my recommendations (many of these recommendations are based on ways to counter the issues that Clowes raises):