WordPress to Remain Most Attacked Platform, Researchers Say

Cyber-criminals continue to focus on the popular open-source Web content management platform and its ecosystem of plugins, according to researchers.

Over the past two years, cyber-criminals have focused more heavily on attacking Websites based on the WordPress content management system and its ecosystem of software plugins.

The trend will continue in 2015, driven by the lack of security awareness among WordPress' large user base and the lack of security expertise among its plugin developers, according to experts.

In 2014, attacks against WordPress sites were more numerous than the attacks against all other platforms combined, stated a report published by security firm Imperva. This is not surprising, considering that nearly 24 percent of Websites use WordPress, according to Internet survey group W3Techs.

Brute-force password-guessing attacks and exploitation of vulnerable plugins are two common vectors of attack.

"I think that the challenge for the security of the platform has always been the end user, the plugins and the themes. The combination of those, if improperly maintained, leaves the site vulnerable," Tony Perez, CEO of Website security firm Sucuri, told eWEEK.

Each major content management system has become a focus of bug-finding researchers and attackers over the past four years. In 2010, Joomla and its associated plugins had four times as many vulnerabilities reported as Drupal and WordPress, according to the National Vulnerability Database. In 2012, Drupal led the pack, and in 2014, WordPress and its plugins had three times as many bugs reported as the next highest CMS.

Only about one in six of the WordPress vulnerabilities, however, were in the core software. In many ways, the platform is following a similar trajectory to desktop operating systems, where attackers first focused on the core OS and then on popular third-party software and user misconfiguration. While the open-source developers behind WordPress have locked down its core platform, plugins—the third-party software of the WordPress ecosystem—have become a major target.

On Feb. 24, for example, Sucuri reported that a popular plugin for WordPress sites, known as SlimStat, could be used to attack the backend database of hundreds of thousands of Websites using the vulnerable software. Earlier in the month, the company detected attacks against another popular WordPress plugin, FancyBox, with hundreds of thousands of users.

Many of the problems are due to the ecosystem's lean business model, Perez said. Plugin and theme makers are not drawing in large sums of money that can be reinvested in security, he said.

"There is no real formal process for reviews in the WordPress ecosystem," Perez said. "There is no formalized bug-bounty process and the plugin developers don't make enough money to implement something like that."

In addition, the fact that WordPress accounts for eight times the number of Websites as the second most popular software, Joomla, means that attackers will continue to focus on the software, according to Imperva.

"We believe that popularity and a hacker's focus go hand-in-hand," the company said in its report published last year. "When an application or a platform becomes popular, hackers realize that the ROI from hacking into these platforms or applications will be fruitful, so they spend more time researching and exploiting these applications, either to steal data from them or to use the hacked systems as zombies in a botnet."

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...