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Wordpress Supply Chain Attacks

Per Wordfence there are four reasons for supply-chain (i.e. plugin-based) attacks on WordPress installations:

The first reason is simply scale. According to w3techs, WordPress powers 29.2% of all websites – a massive user base to go after. In addition, at the time of this writing there were 53,566 plugins available for download in the official WordPress.org plugin repository. That is a lot to work with on both fronts.

Secondly, the WordPress.org plugin directory is an open, community-driven resource. According to the plugin guidelines page, “It is the sole responsibility of plugin developers to ensure all files within their plugins comply with the guidelines.” This means that while there is a small team tasked with managing the plugin repository and another small team focused on security, ultimately users rely on plugin developers to keep them safe.

Thirdly, most WordPress sites are managed pretty casually. Making a change to a website at a larger company might include code review, testing and a formal change control process. But that’s probably not happening consistently, if at all, on most smaller websites. In addition, many site owners don’t monitor their WordPress sites closely, which means malware can often remain in place for many months without being discovered.

Lastly, the WordPress plugin repository has a huge number of abandoned plugins. When we looked back in May, almost half of the available plugins hadn’t been updated in over two years. This represents a great opportunity for ne’er do wells looking to con unsuspecting plugin authors into selling something they created years ago and have moved on from.

The aforementioned points outline why acquiring and infecting WordPress plugins is a reasonable way of penetrating WordPress installs. However, I think that Wordfence is missing the most important reason that such attacks succeed: few actual users of WordPress are technically component to monitor what, exactly, their plugins are doing. Nor are the shared hosting services particularly good at identifying and alerting technically-illiterate users that their sites are compromised and what the site owners need to do to remediate the intrusion.

Trying to get individual users to more carefully monitor how their plugins work is a fool’s errand. What’s needed is for hosts to provide a community service and actively not just identify hijacked plugins (and sites) but, also, provide meaningful remediation processes. User education and alerts aren’t enough (or even moderately sufficient): companies must guide site owners through the process of cleaning their sites. Otherwise malware campaigns aimed at WordPress will persist and grow over time.