NewsDecember 30, 2016 @ 2:00 PM

Potentially Devastating PHP Vulnerabilities Discovered and Patched

Security specialists have unearthed three fresh PHP vulnerabilities that could have serious consequences for organizations and consumers worldwide.

Yannay Livneh, a member of the exploit research team at Check Point, said in a blog post that his group spent several months analyzing the potential for PHP vulnerabilities in web programming language PHP 7. Through this research, the security team discovered previously unknown vulnerabilities that cybercriminals could have used to spread malware and steal data.

Livneh’s team reported the findings to PHP, and the organization’s security team produced vulnerability fixes. IT security managers must now ensure their business’s web servers are running the latest version of PHP 7.

What Is PHP 7, and Why Is It Being Targeted?

PHP 7 is the latest release of Hypertext Preprocessor, a widely used open-source web programming language. Estimates suggest the language runs more than 80 percent of websites on the internet. In comparison to its predecessors, PHP 7 offers a range of benefits, including higher performance and improved functionality. Progression to the new version of the development language continues at pace. Recent research from tools producer Zend suggested only 14 percent of users have no plans to move to PHP 7, according to CIO.

However, Livneh suggested that PHP 7 also presents a new avenue of attack for cybercriminals, who can use the opportunity to discover vulnerabilities.

How Could the PHP Vulnerabilities Create Problems?

The first two vulnerabilities would give cybercriminals the opportunity to control a website and create mayhem, such as spreading malware or stealing customer data. The third vulnerability would create a denial-of-service (DoS) attack that exhausts memory and shuts the website down.

The good news is that there is no indication that these new vulnerabilities have already been exploited, Livneh told SC Magazine. The even better news for IT managers is that patches for the PHP vulnerabilities have already been issued. The Check Point research team reported the three vulnerabilities back in August and September. PHP security specialists provided updated versions of the programming language in mid-October and at the start of December.

Why Did These Concerns Emerge, and Is PHP 7 Business-Ready?

Livneh and his research team focused their analysis on what is known as the “unserialize mechanism,” which is an area that was heavily exploited by cybercriminals in PHP 5. While the same mechanism was again the root of the concern, the vulnerability in PHP 7 was different in form to that in PHP 5.

The exploit associated with PHP 5 allowed hackers to attack high-profile platforms and websites, including those built on Drupal. The patches to PHP 7 should provide a sense of calm for security managers, although it should be noted that some reticence to adopt the new version of the programming language remains.

The Zend research discovered that a range of factors dissuade PHP 7 laggards from migrating, including incompatibility with custom code (31 percent), deficiency in terms of support (17 percent) and scarcity of extensions (11 percent).

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Mark Samuels

Tech Journalist

Mark Samuels is an experienced business technology journalist with an outstanding track record in research. He specializes in the role of chief information officers (CIOs) and is adept at helping executives understand the business benefits of complex technologies. Key areas of interest include innovation, digital transformation, cloud computing, mobility, information security, ecommerce and big data. Mark has written articles for national newspapers, including The Guardian, The Times and The Sunday Times. He has also produced features and columns for a range of IT trade publications, such as Computer Weekly, ZDNet, Tech Republic, IT Pro, Channel Pro, CBR and The Register.