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Protecting Websites

Protecting website from Malicious Uploads requires an understanding of various areas.

Measures to take when protecting from malicious uploads

The best way to protect your site from malicious uploads is not to allow file uploads—if only it were that easy. With modern pages, we have forum avatars, photography services, and Content Management Systems (CMS) used by writers and bloggers.

The big tech companies have the infrastructure, hosting, and staff to handle the influx of content uploaded via social media. So what about the sole proprietors and small businesses?  Let’s say we pay for outside services such as outsourcing to a web developer or security expert? The onus is still on us to protect our data. Imagine you pay a shady web designer $500 to create your webpage, which could easily leave some security holes in a WordPress website. Or maybe you decided to create the page yourself, and it’s your first web development experience. Regardless, if it is a skeleton crew handling the technology side of the business, we better at least know how to check for security vulnerabilities.


Number of WP websites on the Internet


WordPress is the most popular CMS on the internet, with over 39% of active websites. That’s millions of WordPress websites! Naturally, hackers are going to try and hit the giant bullseye. Over half of the vulnerabilities in WordPress are found in the plugins users deploy, which include –you guessed it– file upload plugins. It turns out that malicious file uploads are ranked third most popular for attacking WordPress sites.

Okay, so how is this relevant to you if you don’t use WordPress? These statistics give a good insight into how attackers target websites in general. So, suppose the third most popular attack on over 40% of the internet is via a file upload. In that case, it is probably a good idea to ensure that your small business website is not vulnerable to this attack by protecting sites from such plugins and avoiding them!

Types of Website Vulnerabilities

Upload Functionality

For users of a CMS (WordPress etc.), upload fields are the attack vector. WordPress users install plugins that contain upload fields often without knowing they are even there. WordPress does not open file upload access open by default, so it must be added. The problem is that many plugins add this functionality. Even when the functionality is an intentional addition to your page, you are rolling the dice about how well this plugin handles file uploads. So, the best approach is to find a popular WordPress upload plugin and pair it with something like the ‘WP Upload Restriction plugin, which verifies the actual file type.

For non-WordPress users, file uploads are traditionally done with PHP, SQL, and an HTML form. You will need an HTML form to accept the upload, a server-side script to handle what the files do after they hit your server, and a database to store everything.

Upload Website Vulnerability

File uploads are inherently dangerous because attackers employ many tricks that conceal scripts. There are hidden areas of files containing PHP script, like a comments section, that may be overlooked. That hidden script–if executed–can wreak havoc on your server. Browsers use MIME types, which stands for Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions, and it’s regulated by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). All that means is that there are internet standards for file types unique to the actual file extension itself. This is important because using an existing file extension instead of the proper MIME type can break web pages. However, with all that said, manually checking the file extension or MIME type is *not* a reliable method of ensuring an upload is safe.

Protecting Websites through File Validation

Validation is the most important thing you can do with uploaded files. This needs to happen on the server side as well as the client side. Typically, sites rely on the client-side validation of a file format, but we already know that files (images in particular) can contain hidden scripts. Even more apparent malicious files like guesswhat.jpg.php can slip through without validation. WordPress users can install plugins that enforce file type rules, such as the ‘WP Upload Restriction’ plugin mentioned above.

Traditional sites can use a server-side script to rename files upon upload to prevent the double extension attack (see image below). Many articles will tell you to make a ‘whitelist of accepted file types, but this list will not work unless you know the actual file type. What needs to happen is the prevention of file execution in general by changing the file’s permissions (chmod 0666 in Linux) so that it cannot be executed.

Denial of Service

Protecting WebsitesWhat if an attacker did not have a limit on the number of files they could upload? What if your site did not restrict the size of those files? Thousands of tiny files can be uploaded simultaneously, or several large files, which will consume your bandwidth. Either way, your file upload service is a DoS (Denial of Service) attack waiting to happen.

If you have ever wondered why we have to fill out CAPTCHA recognition constantly forms online, now you understand why. File size and upload limit restrictions can be enforced by adding PHP upload values to your .htaccess in the WordPress root directory or creating them in a php.ini file on your non-WordPress server. We also do not want to allow anyone to upload a file, so restricting this ability to registered users is essential.


Randomizing the URL of the upload form page is not secure enough because a URL is more accessible to acquire than hijacking a user session or guessing a password. Relying on security through obscurity is poor web design because there are many ways an attacker could obtain the URL or scrape your website for “hidden” pages. A proper authentication setup will deny this easy attack. Even if the URL is set to expire, how do you determine an effective timeout period? Adequate authentication is a far superior option. This is why many websites we use today require a login plus an email verification to use their services.


HTTPS is required to prevent eavesdropping on a user’s session because, over regular HTTP, everything is transmitted in plain text. This eavesdropping will compromise any security gained through authentication, as the attacker could steal a cookie from a user session to hijack it. In the not-so-distant past, paying for HTTPS certificates was one of the primary excuses for leaving a site on HTTP. Using HTTPS now improves your page ranking through major search engines. There is a common misconception that only banks or other sites dealing with financial transactions need HTTPS. So, the answer to this problem is to get a free, open-source HTTPS certificate through Let’s Encrypt.

Proper Data Storage

Another factor to consider is where all of these uploads reside. For example, an attacker could run the executable with a URL if they are in your site’s root directory. Renaming files so an attacker cannot remotely find and execute the file will prevent this attack. The ideal scenario is to put all your user upload data on a separate server so your web server can only access it. This is another necessary layer of protection in case malicious code does make it in with an upload. Still, rename user-uploaded files no matter where the data is stored to protect your server from remote file upload vulnerability.

Error Messages

Sometimes attackers will use the information from error messages to their advantage. For example, suppose a file upload produces an error that reveals the directories of files on the server. In that case, an attacker can use that information to execute malicious code hidden in file uploads remotely. This is all predicated on the assumption that the malicious code gets through in the first place, but other exploits can be done based on the data revealed by errors. Also, server configuration information and WordPress installation details can leak with error messages which can be used for other exploits such as cross-site scripting and SQL injection. To prevent this from happening, modify your server configuration to create custom error pages in your root directory.

Other Measures in Protecting Websites

So aside from the mentioned methods, there are other precautions you can take with your server to prevent malicious script uploads and other exploits. The first thing you can do is make sure that your server is behind a firewall. Close all unnecessary ports and leave open the essentials like 22, 80, and 443. Speaking of port 22, make sure your file transfers are done over SFTP or SSH. Disable password authentication on your server so only machines with an SSH key can log in. This will prevent session information from leaking and other information related to uploads. Server virus scanners are also valuable for their ability to catch a rogue file that made it through by user upload. There are also online server vulnerability scanners provided by products like Nikto that will check the integrity of your configuration.

Consequences of not Protecting Websites

The biggest motivator for implementing these security measures is knowing the consequences of rogue code on your server. Hiding malicious code in image files has been the traditional method, and this was used in attacks to disable real-time monitoring of antimalware software.

Your website could also be defaced, or your server could have completely taken over. Denial of Service attacks can make your server inaccessible until the attacker stops or another site instance is put online through services like Cloud Flare. If you have a database of customer information with financial details, this is a target as well. As this can happen server-side, but what about the client side? Your visitors and customers can be targeted through cross-site scripting (XSS) and phishing attacks, or file uploads with hidden code can trigger vulnerabilities in the devices your users are on. Any of these outcomes can be detrimental to your business and your business’s reputation with its customers.

At Visualwebz, we take every measure to protect websites. Let us take care of your website security.


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