The top path to exploitation in many cases is out-of-date and unpatched software that enables hackers to take advantage of known vulnerabilities. No stranger to unpatched software, the WordPress blogging and content management system (CMS) has now taken a large step forward to help reduce that risk by providing automatic updating for plug-ins.
WordPress is an open-source software project that provides freely available application code for users to run in a self-hosted environment. There is also the WordPress.com hosted site operated by Automattic, the lead commercial sponsor of WordPress, which provides a managed WordPress environment and services. WordPress.com offers the Jetpack plug-in for self-hosted WordPress users, which provides multiple services, including a new dashboard for managing multiple WordPress sites.
The Jetpack 3.3 update, which was first officially released on Dec. 16, provides users with a key feature that could help to significantly reduce security risks for self-hosted WordPress sites. With Jetpack 3.3, site administrators can now choose to enable automatic updates for any plug-in that is running on a WordPress site, or even across a group of WordPress sites. Jetpack is a freely available plug-in that self-hosted WordPress users can install directly from within a WordPress site or via the http://jetpack.me/install/ address.
The inclusion of automatic plug-in updates for WordPress follows Automattic's acquisition of security vendor BruteProtect in August.
"The newest version of Jetpack gives users the ability to update plugins, in bulk or automatically, via a WordPress.com connection," the BruteProtect site states. "The addition of this feature, along with Jetpack's existing 'Monitor' functionality (which provides downtime alerts), duplicates most of the features offered by My BruteProtect."
The importance of having a mechanism that automatically updates WordPress plug-ins cannot be overstated. On Dec. 23, security vendor Cyphort reported that it had alerted the Internet Systems Consortium (ISC) that the ISC.org site had been compromised and was serving malware. What is particularly noteworthy is that ISC is the lead sponsor and developer of the open-source BIND DNS server that is widely deployed to power Internet infrastructure. ISC is also the manager of the F-root nameserver for root DNS.
The ISC.org site, according to Cyphort, had been running WordPress. Cyphort noted that it alerted ISC to the issue on Dec. 22 and the site was replaced with a new static page on Dec. 23.
The week prior to the ISC.org hack, eWEEK reported on the SoakSoak malware infection that had impacted more than 100,000 WordPress sites. The SoakSoak malware, like a number of other WordPress security incidents in 2014, took advantage of an out-of-date plug-in on WordPress sites.
With the new Jetpack 3.3 update, out-of-date plug-ins could now become a thing of the past, and the risk of exploits like SoakSoak might well be significantly diminished. The core open-source WordPress project has been providing automatic security and critical bug fix updates since October 2013 when WordPress 3.7 was released. However, those automatic updates have just been for the core of the WordPress code, leaving plug-ins still exposed. The Jetpack 3.3 release closes that risk exposure and, in combination with automatic core WordPress updates, provides an application platform that keeps itself updated against patched security risks.
That said, even though WordPress now has technology for automatic core application and plug-in updates, there are still platform risks. WordPress needs to be installed on top of an application infrastructure stack, which is typically the Linux operating system; the MySQL or MariaDB database; the Apache or Nginx Web server; and the PHP programming language. A vulnerability in any of those components could still potentially expose WordPress sites to risk.
What WordPress has now done though is provide a solid application that can be continuously updated with security updates without administrator intervention. While it's not likely that every WordPress site administrator will enable automatic site and plug-in updates, many will and that will serve to secure a broad swath of the Internet from the risk of unpatched WordPress vulnerabilities.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.