Last week I attended a cyber security conference CyCon held in Estonia. There I had a chance to talk to a couple of guys from web development field. The discussion turned to the security of web applications. We discussed what is safer to use – publicly available open source web applications (for example – CMSes) or custom made websites.
The question is trivial. Public web applications have well known vulnerabilities with ready to use exploit kits. And new vulnerabilities pop up all the time. It doesn’t look promising in terms of security. At the same time private applications remain unknown due to the low prevalence (usually it’s only you using that particular app). Since they are not popular, they are not exploited.
However, there are two important aspects to keep in mind. First, what if you are under targeted attack? What if someone is going particularly after you? And second, what if your web app has some stupid security vulnerabilities that could be accidentally found by automatic (or semi-automatic) security scanners utilized by hackers?
In both cases you are basically left alone (unless you have a contract with the company who made the product). If using private web application you might even not know about the vulnerabilities unless (until) bad things happen.
One more point to keep in mind – if someone wants to hack your website – it will be hacked. That applies to the whole IT security in general (websites, networks, servers, etc.). The question is the time and the price.
Your goal is to make it as hard as possible, so that for the attackers it won’t be worthwhile and so they look for another target.
If you use public applications basically your task is to update them on time and also read and apply installation and security guideline principles. The biggest problem with open source web app is not the application itself, but rather its modules, plugins, etc. While main application is frequently updated, its modules might not. And that pose very important security issue. While a hacker has to find only one vulnerability for a successful attack, you as a protector have to find all the vulnerabilities to be safe.
So despite which version of web app you use it is absolutely necessary to do regular website security scanning as it could reveal possible and unknown vulnerabilities. I would say this is particularly important for custom made applications.
Custom made web application could be more secure then e.g. Joomla, but only if much attention is paid to security. By saying much attention I mean that security is in mind in the whole application development life cycle – planning, developing, testing and supporting. That requires great attitude and big investments.
If you don’t have that – stick to open source CMSes (like Joomla or Drupal). They are public and wide spread, but also many developers constantly take care of their security – as new vulnerabilities appear, they get fixed. So you are not left alone.
If you decide to use Joomla, Drupal or others, it’s very IMPORTANT to update them on time and to use all measures possible to harden them appropriately by following their installation and security guides. Also don’t forget to scan website security at regular intervals.