Security for developers

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Presentation by Wikimedia Foundation Security Engineer Chris Steipp from the WMF Tech Days 2012

As a MediaWiki developer, you have a responsibility to write secure code in a style that is easy to review and audit. This article focuses on the issues related to security and on the best practices used by MediaWiki developers to address these security issues. For issues of coding style, please read the MediaWiki coding conventions.

Every MediaWiki developer should carefully read this article, regardless of their level of experience in web application development and with PHP, and periodically re-familiarize themselves with this material. Additionally, every developer should carefully read the articles on Cross-site scripting (XSS), Cross-site request forgery (CSRF), Register globals, and SQL injection, which each provide more detailed explanations of each of these common vulnerability types. The security checklist for developers provides a useful reference for common development tasks.

Why security matters[edit]

Web application security is a critical issue in the wired world. Websites with security vulnerabilities are a key part of the illicit global infrastructure of malware, spam and phishing. Bot herders crawl the web looking for websites with security vulnerabilities, and then use the vulnerabilities to hijack them. The hijacked website will distribute malware (viruses) to visitors, either via browser vulnerabilities or overtly by social engineering. The downloaded malware turns the client's computer into a "zombie" that is part of a global network of organized crime aimed at stealing bank account details, sending spam, and extorting money from websites with denial-of-service threats.

Demonstrable security[edit]

It's not enough to assure yourself that you are perfect and that your code has no security vulnerabilities. Everyone makes mistakes. All core code, and a good deal of extension code, is reviewed by experienced developers to verify its security. This is a good practice and should be encouraged.

Write code in such a way that it is demonstrably secure, such that a reviewer can more easily tell that it's secure. Don't write code that looks suspicious but is, on careful examination, secure. Such code causes unnecessary reviewer anxiety.

Overview of security vulnerabilities and attacks[edit]

This document has a strong focus on the following attacks and security risks. Each MediaWiki developer should be familiar with these issues and have at least a passing understanding of them.

Cross-site scripting (XSS)[edit]

For detailed information on avoiding XSS vulnerabilities in MediaWiki, read the Cross-site scripting article.

Cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerabilities allow an attacker to inject malicious code into a website. XSS vulnerabilities are caused by a web application not properly escaping data from external sources (such as GET data, POST data, RSS feeds or URLs). The range of attacks that can be made via XSS are very diverse, ranging from harmless pranks to the hijacking of an authenticated user's account.

Primary defenses: To avoid XSS attacks, the basic principles are:

  • Validate your input
  • Escape your output

You can skip validation, but you can never skip escaping. Escape everything. Escape as close to the output as possible, so that the reviewer can easily verify that it was done.

Note that output encoding (escaping) is context sensitive. So be aware of the intended output context and encode appropriately (e.g. HTML entity, URL, Javascript, etc.)

The OWASP Abridged XSS Prevention Cheat Sheet is a useful and up to date quick reference guide for mitigating XSS issues.

If you are writing JavaScript, please ensure that you understand DOM-based XSS, and how to prevent it in your code.

Cross-site request forgery (CSRF)[edit]

For detailed information on avoiding CSRF vulnerabilities in MediaWiki, read the Cross-site request forgery article.

Cross-site request forgery (CSRF or XSRF) attacks use authentication credentials cached in a victim's browser (such as a cookie or cached username and password) to authorize malicious HTTP requests. The malicious HTTP request can be sent in many ways. As long as the requests are processed by a web browser that has cached authentication credentials, a CSRF attack can be attempted.

Primary defenses: Our primary defense mechanism against CSRF attacks is to add edit tokens to HTML forms.

Register globals[edit]

For detailed information on avoiding variable injection when register globals is enabled, read the register_globals article.
Note that MediaWiki 1.24+ will automatically disable itself if register_globals is enabled.

register_globals is a deprecated configuration directive of PHP. When enabled, register_globals causes data passed to a PHP script via cookies or GET and POST requests to be made available as global variables in the script. This configuration directive is extremely dangerous, often allowing an attacker to overwrite variables in a script simply by adding parameters to requests.

Primary defenses: MediaWiki developers must write their code to defend against register globals-based variable injection, since register_globals may be enabled on servers where MediaWiki is installed. There are several guidelines to follow:

  • Do not use global variables in script paths
  • Make sure code is only executed in the right context (e.g. check that include files aren't being executed directly)
  • Sanitize custom global variables before use
  • Configure extensions only after their setup file is included

SQL injection[edit]

For detailed information on avoiding SQL injection, read the SQL injection article.

SQL injection relies on poorly validated input being used in a database query, possibly allowing an attacker to run arbitrary SQL queries on your server. The attacker may then be able to fetch private data, destroy data or cause other unintended responses. In the worst case, the injected code could allow the attacker to gain full control of the system by exploiting multiple vulnerabilities in the database server, system utilities and operating system.

Primary defenses: The primary defense against SQL injection is to use MediaWiki's built-in database functions. Avoid using direct SQL queries at all costs.


unserialize() can lead to arbitrary code execution. To prevent this MediaWiki developers should always use json instead of php serialization in new code.

Primary defenses: Use FormatJson::encode and FormatJson::decode instead of PHP's native serialization.

See also[edit]



Coding conventionsManual:Coding conventions
General All languagesManual:Coding conventions#Code structure · Development policyDevelopment policy · Security for developersSecurity for developers · Pre-commit checklistManual:Pre-commit checklist · Performance guidelinesPerformance guidelines (draft) · Style guideDesign/Living style guide · Accessibility guide for developersAccessibility guide for developers (draft) · Best practices for extensionsBest practices for extensions
PHP Code conventionsManual:Coding conventions/PHP · PHPUnit test conventionsManual:PHP unit testing/Writing unit tests#Test_conventions · Security checklist for developersSecurity checklist for developers
JavaScript Code conventionsManual:Coding conventions/JavaScript · Learning JavaScriptLearning JavaScript
CSS Code conventionsManual:Coding conventions/CSS
Database Code conventionsManual:Coding conventions/Database · Database policyDevelopment policy#Database policy
Python Code conventionsManual:Coding conventions/Python
Ruby Code conventionsManual:Coding conventions/Ruby
Selenium/Cucumber Code conventionsManual:Coding conventions/Selenium
Java Code conventionsManual:Coding conventions/Java
API client code Standards for API client librariesAPI:Client code/Gold standard