Shared Hosting: PHP Session Security

NOTE: This tutorial does not include anything about safe_mode as it has been deprecated in PHP 5.3 and completely removed in PHP 5.4. (the most current release at the time of this posting). Before you select a shared hosting platform, you should inquire about the PHP version they're using. If they're still on PHP 5.2 or lower, avoid them - you'll be better off in the long run.

If you're like just about every other web application developer out there, chances are you either cut your teeth on a shared hosting platform or have had to work with a site that used one. There's a few advantages that come with shared hosting:

  • Lower price than dedicated options
  • No server admin required
  • A "one click" sort of solution for site deployment

Of course, there's also several things that you give up when you choose to go the shared hosting route. One of the largest of these is, obviously, the security of your application. When you pick a shared host for your app, you're one small chunk of a larger system - one that, depending on the server, could be hosting hundreds of other sites. You have to trust that the system administrators know how to correctly configure their systems to provide you with the most secure system they can.

There's lots of security implications that come with a shared system like this, but I'm just going to focus on one of them for this article - the security of the data in your sessions. These problems only really apply to sites that host on shared machines, though. If you're running on your own dedicated server (or maybe even a Platform-as-a-Service setup), you'll still want to be careful with your data, but you won't have these issues specifically.

Shared Session Directory

By default, PHP drops all of its session files and their data into a single directory, like /tmp. Additionally, again by default, all of the session files are written by whatever user the web server is running as. This is file for a single user/application kind of system but when you start having multiple applications and customers all living on the same box and all having their session files written by the same user, the problem starts to show up. See it yet?

Here's an example of the problem - say User1 has their application living on the same host as User2. Somehow, User1 figures out the existence of User2's app on the same server and signs up for an account. When User1 logs in, they'll be all set up with a session and the access for their user type. User2 then uploads a simple PHP script that takes in a session ID and a value to inject and, when executed, updates his session in User2's application...possibly even giving him admin rights.

"Surely there's something to prevent this," you think. Unfortunately, there's not. Because of how PHP and Apache handle the session files, if your sessions are written to a shared directory, they're readable and writeable by anyone else using that same server.

Here's an example in code:

In the file <?php session_start(); echo session_id()."<br/>\n"; print_r($_SESSION); ?>

And in the file <?php session_id($_GET['sid']); session_start(); $_SESSION['testing'] = 123; session_write_close(); ?>

To see the problem firsthand, put these two files on different two different domains that both live on the same server (check the IPs to see). If you hit the first page in your browser, you'll be given a new session and output of the session contents (in $_SESSION). Now, go and hit that second page in a different browser with the URL param of sid=[session ID] where the ID is from the first page. The code tells PHP to change over the session to match that ID and then push the testing value into it. It then forces a write of that out to the session. Now go refresh that first page and you should see something very interesting - a new value in the session!

This only works when the following criteria match:

  • The two domains/apps live on the same server
  • The session information is in a shared directory
  • The session files are all written by the same user
What a Sysadmin Can Do

If you're lucky enough to have some say in the system (or happen to be the sysadmin for such a system), there's a few different things you can do to help out your users and protect them and their data a bit more:

  1. Change the save_path per VirtualHost: One option is to update the PHP setting session.save_path for each of the hosts living on that server. This setting would need to be in the web server configuration, though, so that the user couldn't mess with something like an .htaccess file and change it. By setting a different path for the user's session files, you can keep them out of the shared realm and make it someplace inaccesible by other users.

NOTE: You should never set this path to a location inside of your site's document root. This could expose those files, and their contents, to the outside world...a very bad thing.

  1. Run as the user: There are options out there (like suPHP or FastCGI) that will allow the PHP applications to run as users other than the one the web server runs as. Usually, the web server user is a nobody that has almost no access. By defining the user the scripts under that domain should execute as in the VirtualHost (or similar configuration file), it also writes your session files as that user adding an additional layer of permissions and security to your session storage.

  2. Use an alternative storage method: Since the filesystem can be a dangerous place for any kind of sensitive session data to live, you might consider another option - storing them, using a custom session handler, in another data storage solution. Popular choices include either a database like MySQL or a caching tool like Memcache or Cassandra. Using storage like this, you can specify login information in the domain's configuration (as environment variables) and a custom session handler to read and write from it. If you're a really nice sysadmin, you'd provide options to your users when they sign up to service as to where they'd like the session information stored.

What a Developer Can Do

Unfortunately, if you're on a host that dosen't really care about the security of your session information and leaves the save_path as the default, you're going to be forced to take matters into your own hands.

If you have access to a database (and don't mind a little extra latency) you'd be far better off storing your session information there than in the shared path. Obviously you'd want to be careful with the credentials for this method - any would-be attacker that has them could connect to the database from their app and modify the contents if they know the username/password to get at it.

Another possible tactic to preventing the theft of data is to use encryption on your session data. You could use something like this to automatically read and write your data in an encrypted format to the server. This prevents the casual browsing of the session contents (since it's just serialized by default) and would require the user to gain access to your source to figure out how to decrypt it.


Session security, as with any other security-related topics, is a complex matter and precautions should be taken to ensure the validity and integrity of the data. This goes double if you're using a shared host. Hopefully some of the things outlined here have given you some ideas and food for thought about your session data and how to protect it.

Are you on shared hosting? Do you have other methods you're using to protect your session data? I'd love to hear about them - leave a comment!


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.

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