Stay Safe in Your Php.ini

PHP is one of the easiest web-related languages you can pick up these days - it's no wonder that so much of the web is powered by this language. Thanks to a lot of different projects out there, even getting it insalled and cooperating is a few click process (if it's not already installed by default!) Unfortunately, because the language is so easy to just drop into and get started with, it also leads to some bad security practices by developers that "just want to get things done" and don't care too much about protecting the applications they write. Add to the fact that PHP doesn't have much built-in security to help these developers out and you could be in for some nasty surprises.

There is one thing that PHP programmers have on their side, though - that handy settings file that's included functionality in every PHP instance on the planet, the php.ini. By turning on/off some of the settings in this file, you can reap some immediate benefits for the security of your application.

Below is a list of some of the more common settings you can use to provide a little extra piece of mind for your apps:

  • display_errors: By default, PHP will output it's error messaging to whatever's calling the script (be it in a brrowser or a command line). Unfortuantely, this can provide attackers with valuable things like file paths and even line numbers where errors hapened. Using this sort of information, they could "feel out" your app and possibly find vulnerable spots. Because of this, it's recommended that - in production - you set your INI to turn off errors and prevent this information from showing. You can, however, leave them on if you choose to implement your own error handling that lets you control the output a bit more.

  • allow_url_include & allow_url_fopen: These two are pretty similar, so I figured I'd just lump them together. When you think about your application and all of the files that it includes for each request, you think that's all pretty secure but what happens if somehow an exploit is found and the attacker figures out how to get your code to include one of their scripts from a remote server? Mass chaos, that's what. Since the inclusion of files doesn't show up in any logging (unless you have something custom), it's very hard to diagnose something like this. You can give yourself an extra layer of protection by disabling both of these features. They prevent the opening of resources from remote sourcesa and help to lock down your code to only local resources. This can be a bother if your app needs to pull in data from an external source, but you'd be better off in the long run having some other process do that pull rather than leave this possible door open.

  • max_execution_time & memory_limit: This is another two-for-one that can not only help protect your application but can help to keep your sysadmins happy too. Their names are pretty self-descriptive, but here's a brief summary for each. the max_execution_time is a per-request setting and can prevent runaway processes from taking over your system. If an attacker was trying to perform an exploit and was trying to overload the server, having something like this set could make their job a whole lot harder. The memory_limit setting could help with the same sort of problem too. It keeps the pre-request memory limit of the script at or below the setting. It's only allowed to allocate that much memory, so it can help keep a cap on your resources.

  • disable_functions: You probably won't see this one used very often, but it can be very handy if you know there's things you just don't want used in your application. You can provide this configuration directive with a list of function names to restrict. One example of how this could be useful is to disable any of the functions that let you execute anything on the filesystem (like exec, passthru or system).

  • session.cookie_httponly: By enabling this setting, your sessions (if you're using them) will be forced to use a "HTTP Only" cookie to store the session ID on the client side. This type of cookie has the added benefit of only being able to be read by the system that initiated it. This helps to prevent any information disclosure via an XSS attack that could leak your session ID and make it super simple to perform a session fixation attack and masquerade as you.

Removed/Deprecated Settings

Fortunately, if you're using a recent release of PHP (5.3 or 5.4), you have two less things to worry about. The register_globals and magic_quotes_gpc settings have been permenantly removed from the language. These two settings alone have caused so many collective headaches to PHP developers thorough the's good to see them go.

Another setting that was deprecated as of PHP 5.3 and completely removed in 5.4 was safe_mode which, contrary to its name, provided a false sense of security for anyone that enabled it. It tried to lock down the install so that the application couldn't "do things it shouldn't" but it had so many problems, it was finally removed. It's been replaced, though...thankfully by something a bit more robust - common sense! Since there's no silver bullet when it comes to protecting an application, you're just going to have to use some sense and put some thought into the architecture of your code to protect it!


PhpSecInfo Tests for your php.ini OWASP on HttpOnly

by Chris Cornutt

With over 12 years of experience in development and a focus on application security Chris is on a quest to bring his knowledge to the masses, making application security accessible to everyone. He also is an avodcate for security in the PHP community and provides application security training and consulting services.

Enjoying the article? Consider contributing to help spread the message!