Hosting Security


Being vulnerable is powerful starting point for learning and change. When it comes to software, this is also the case, but never in a good way or at a convenient time. This past week we have been notified of a relatively serious vulnerability in the WordPress website content management system. In this post we will explore the issue, the resolution, and actions we can take to ensure exposure is minimised.

So mid afternoon NZ time on the 7th of Jan, 2022, we were alerted to a new wordpress security vulnerability – The vulnerability report is kinda bland but here is a more detailed explanation.

What researchers found, was that an authenticated wordpress user with the ability to manage tags, or categories, or content metadata (attributes associated with content) could manipulate the data so that additional commands could be sent to the database server. So for example (and this is crude and untested), someone could fashion a request that contained an ‘IN’ component containing “‘; truncate table wp_users;”, and you would find that you’d lose all the content from your wordpress users table, and that is kinda unhelpful.

Once this vulnerability was found, the wordpress development team have been working on how to patch this to prevent issues. The patch has been published at but to explain what they are doing, basically they are replacing any space characters with underscores in the inputted data, so it all looks like one word, and an sql statement cannot be made.

So how serious is this vulnerability? Well it depends how much you trust your users, and how much access you give them to curate their own datasets. So for your average wordpress site that is just a brochure site, no user logins etc, there is minimal risk, as you are curating the content for the end user, therefor the requests will be safe as you won’t want to scupper your own site. But giving users the power to enter or alter data, well that’s where it can all go wrong if such capability is in the wrong hands, and if exploited, could mean very serious implications for your database.

For all of Webmad‘s hosted wordpress site clients, we have patched this vulnerability on all potentially effected sites on our managed servers, eliminating the risk here, but if you have a website you think could be at risk, certainly get in contact and we can patch / update your site too.

As per other posts on this site, the key is to keep your website software updated to the latest versions, so that any security issues are found and repaired as soon as possible to reduce vulnerability. Much of this either requires keeping up to date with the current threats by following threat boards etc, or ensuring you have a regular update schedule for your site. With wordpress you can also turn on auto updating of websites, which helps automate the ‘keeping on top of things’.

Hosting Security

Log4j and global panic

Now-a-days, the world is getting used to things being thrown at it to worry about. And we all hope that smart cookies in a lab somewhere will find a cure. Well – a couple of days ago, some boffins found a new computer bug that is being given hazard level 10, and I can assure you – that gets us geeks all rather excited

CVE-2021-44228, or the Log4j bug, was first published, with a patch, on the 9th / 10th of December. This vulnerability, which was discovered by Chen Zhaojun of Alibaba Cloud Security Team, impacts Apache Log4j.

Yip – that’s all foreign language to most humans, but the long and short of it is, this is a fresh vulnerability found in a piece of software very commonly used across the world for storing software activity logs, that allows anyone without permission, access to hijack a computer system and effectively run their own commands – from establishing a ransomware attack on a host, through to compromising secure user records etc.

The vulnerability has been shown to be active in software that uses the log4j software as well – from well known names like Apple iOS (yep – your mobile phone / tablet), MacOS, VMWare, Discord, Ubiquiti etc – A list is starting to be collected via – a patch has been released to counter the attack, but the slower people are applying the patch, the more exposed systems are, and the more havoc that can be applied globally.

So what can we do?

  • Check for, and apply, any updates from software manufacturers. Always make sure you are running the latest versions of everything. This is paramount for both your security and your piece of mind.
  • Consider application of a strong, secure firewall to block potential threat traffic from getting to your systems
  • Contact any providers you use that could be storing sensitive information and seek assurances that they have taken appropriate measures to counter the risk associated with this new threat

Here at Webmad all of our hosting systems have been secured against this threat, simply because we are not using any services that rely on Log4j, and any of our upstream providers have been quick off the mark to get this resolved. Should you have any concerns though, by all means get in contact.

Hosting Security

Never trust an email

Over the last week, some of our shared hosting clients have been targeted by a rather complex email attack that is focusing on clients using cPanel based hosting, like we use at Webmad.

The attack first detects if the website hosting is cPanel based, and then if it can locate a contact email address form the website, it emails the contact with an email that looks like a legitimate cPanel disk space usage warning email, requesting you take various actions to protect your website from downtime.

This typically looks like the following:

So the key components of the email to look out for are:

  • If you hover your mouse over the links in the email, they are not the same as the link text. This is a huge red flag, as it is misleading you as to where you think you are being directed.
  • The From address always has ‘no-reply@’ at the start – most hosting providers will customise this so it comes from them, not from your own domain name
  • The disk usage percentage is always over 95%

Please ignore these emails, and if you have followed any of the links, do let your hosting provider know as soon as possible, as it is possible that details you provide on the links will lead to compromising your websites hosting security – its best to work through with your hosting provider the best course of action from here.

For Webmad hosted clients – we don’t actually have set disk quotas on our hosting, so we can assure you you will never receive any legitimate emails like this from us – we prefer to contact you directly, using humans not automation. Contact us if you ever have any concerns.

Stay safe out there everyone!

Interaction Security Technology

Cookies – trick or treat?

One of many annoyances of the internet these days is the dreaded ‘Please accept our cookies’ popup you see on a great number of websites, warning you of the intention of the site you are visiting to give you things called cookies. They sound soo sweet, digestable, and innocent. But how many of us actually know what they are, how they are used, and if they are dangerous or not?

So – what is a cookie and why are they on the internet?

A cookie, in the internet sense, is a wee fragment of data that a website can store in your web browser for a defined period of time. This can be until you close your browser, it can be days or weeks. Once a cookie is stored on the end users browser, that cookie of information is sent to the server with every new page request or interaction with that websites server. Cookies are restricted to only send data back to the domain name that set them. A cookie is unique to each user – they may store the same information, but because they are stored on the end users device, they are unique to that user.

Where they get powerful is that website developers can store data in a cookie that enables them to customise our browsing experience on their website. Typically what this looks like is when a user has logged in to a website a token is stored on a cookie for that user session so that every subsequent request to the server can prove that it is from the logged in user, and the server can customise its response according to your profile and stored settings. This is really useful.

Where this can get risky though, is when you visit websites that use advertising networks. Advertising networks can set cookies on your computer to track what websites you have visited, and your preferences so they can target you with ads for things they think you need. This is seen as predatory, and can give these networks a huge wealth of information about you and your online habits. The more websites an advertising network is used on, the more data they can collect.

Its this predatory use of cookies on websites that has given cookies their bad name. Cookies as an object are quite harmless – they do not contain code that gets executed or anything dangerous, but they can store information that can be used to identify individual users and ‘follow’ them around. To break up the amount of data that can be used to identify a user, it is recommended to either use a cookie blocker in your browser that can determine if the cookie is from an advertising network or not.

While cookies are generally safe to accept, websites in many geographic locations nowadays need to request the users permission before they can store cookies in their website browsers. The lawmakers in these regions pass laws to make this mandatory for sites doing business in these regions so that their people can make informed decisions on what information can follow them around on the internet.

If you visit a website that you know you won’t be logging in to or signing up for, then there is no need to accept the cookies on that site. If you are keen to interact with the site, and have a customised experience, then accepting cookies is quite fine. You can always clear out cookies from your browser at any stage – the process varies depending on what web browser you are using, but you can view the content of any of the cookies, and delete whichever ones you prefer.


What is 2 Factor Authentication (2FA) ?

Its become increasingly popular for websites these days to request two factor authentication to be added to your login for extra security. This is a good thing… but why? And what is 2FA?

There are lots of different ways to authenticate yourself. These get lumped into 3 main groups, called factors:

  • Something you know ( ie a password or phrase you can remember )
  • Something you have ( ie a device that you have with you that can give a code to assist with authentication, or something like a credit card )
  • Something you are ( ie a fingerprint or facial recognition, or an iris scan like in the movies )

Soo – knowing there are 3 possible factors that can be used in authentication, 2 factor authentication is simply authentication that uses a method from 2 of the main authentication type groups. Generally the ‘something you are’ type verification is tricky to implement – some cell phones and laptops have fingerprint verification, some mobile phones boast facial recognition as well… but in practice this is fairly hit and miss… you burn or cut your finger and you are locked out, or you wake up in the morning looking a bit rough, ad you are locked out.

Typically 2 factor authentication in the real world is done using a password or pin number (something you know) and something you have (either a mobile phone with an app on it or something like a credit card). Your EFTPOS card has had 2FA since waaaay back. The internet is just catching up. Its coming from a place where all you had to know was a password – a password for your email, a password for your banking, a password for your computer login… and they all must be unique and 8+ characters long with a capital and a number and a symbol and your first pets name and… well the list goes on. All things from the ‘stuff you know’ pile.

So to bring in the ‘Something you have’ group, what most places do now is they rely on your smartphone to be able to provide the ‘something you have’ component – most people live with them on their hip, and they are easy to code for. Either send them a text message (sms), or write a mobile phone app that can provide a code that only the web server and the mobile phone app can validate its a particular user.

Why is this so much better than single factor authentication?
It is becoming increasingly easy to brute force decrypt a password. Heck – some poorly written websites have even been known to store passwords in plain text, so they are humanly readable if you get access to the storage that holds them. By adding 2FA, even if someone did manage to work out the password, they won’t have access to the device that completes the authentication, so whatever it is you are protecting with authentication, is still safe as long as it requires both password and a second factor.

If you’ve got a website that you need to secure, we strongly recommend 2FA if possible. I know some people who can help make this happen

Hosting Security

Why do I need an SSL certificate on my website?

Heres the thing… many websites don’t need one. Will the world break? Nope. Will you be putting your best face out to the world if you don’t have one? Well… not really. And this is the tricky bit.

Most browsers nowadays will mark your website as not being secure if you don’t have an SSL certificate, and you will be penalised in search result rankings by the big search players like google etc for not having one. Seems a bit unfair really… but – lets take a look at why we have SSL certificates, and then it might be easier to see why they are actually a good thing to have.

So – what on earth is this SSL thing anyways?

SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer. Its not like a physical thing. Its a protocol. Don’t zone out. This bits important. SSL is a method of communicating from one device to another, typically from your computer / laptop / mobile phone / tablet / whatever, to the server which hosts your website.

So normal communication for website traffic is sent in plain text. It uses HTML coding language to make it look pretty when you see it, but anyone could read the content and if you can understand html, even just a little, you can probably get the gist of what is happening on the page. If anyone was to get a copy of the communications between your device and the server (this can potentially happen at internet routers etc), they could see what you are up to, and potentially take over your communications and impersonate you to the server, and do things you probably didn’t intend.

A huge majority of the websites out there are the equivalent of an online brochure out there on the internet. So who would care if anyone has seen the content of peoples interactions with your site? Well yeah you wouldn’t really, and its not compulsory for this type of website to have an SSL certificate. But where this falls over is if your website has a contact form, or you ask for any sort of user input. If people could intercept that information, thats not ideal for your clients, and likewise not ideal for you.

This is where SSL comes in. It’s a protocol that defines a method of secure communication between your device and the website server. By securing the communication, no one can listen in on what you send to the server, or what the server sends back. Woo!

Jolly good… So why do i need an SSL certificate? Can I put it on the wall? Frame it? Is there a ceremony?

Yeah nah. What an SSL certificate does is it proves the server is who it claims to be, so that when you you set up an SSL communication link with it, the communication gets encrypted with a special hash (long string of numbers and letters that are mathematically representative of something) which proves that the communication is legitimate. That special hash is called the certificate. If any part of the communication can’t be decrypted with the certificate, lets say part of the communication has changed etc, then the client device can easily pick that up and fail the communication. Because the communication is encrypted, if anyone is watching the traffic, they would need that certificate in order to decode it… Only the device that set up the initial communication channel with SSL can decrypt the communications.

An SSL certificate is locked to a particular domain name. So if someone was to copy your website, they could not use your SSL certificate because it wouldn’t match the domain. Some SSL certificates allow for multiple domain names (sometimes referred to as SANS) to be serviced by the one certificate (lets say you have a website that has multiple domain names pointed at it, but its all served by the same server). You can also get what are known as wildcard ssl certs which are valid for any subdomains of your primary domain name. ie and

You can also get stronger SSL certificates. This is measured by the number of bits (digital measurement) of numbers and letters that are used to make up the certificate. So you can get 256 bit through to 2048 bit at the moment, with 1024 to 2048 bit certificates being the industry standard at the moment. The more bits your certificate is, the harder it is for someone trying to decrypt anything signed with it.

The third parameter you deal with when purchasing your SSL certificate is that you need to verify that you are who you say you are. This can be done in 2 ways. Either domain verified or organisation verified.

  • Domain verified: This is the easiest form of certificate to get. All you need to do to prove ownership is either verify you have access to an email address linked to the ownership of the domain name you are trying to protect, or to place a file on the website hosting for that domain at a particular location so that the issuing authority can visit it to prove it’s you. Some issuing authorities also allow for DNS based verification where you alter a DNS record on your domain. Thi is by far the quickest option, and can be completed in minutes.
  • Organisation verification. This is harder and takes quite a bit longer. You have to verify the domain name as above, but you also need to verify that the company or organisation purchasing the certificate is a valid company or organisation, and has a physical address and phone number verified by a 3rd party like the yellow pages etc. This process can take days or weeks.
Who gives these certificates out, and why can’t i just invent my own?

Well – you can generate your own certificates – these are called self signed certificates. But – because you make it yourself, no-one trusts them, cos you could say anything about yourself, and no-one else can verify your statement. I mean, I’m actually the worlds best chef… I could generate a certificate to tell you this. But if you asked my wife or kids…

Because of this, we need certification authorities who are globally trusted, who can then verify anyone looking to get an SSL certificate is who they say they are courtesy of the domain checks above or the organisation tests. Examples of this are Sectigo and GeoTrust. Different providers offer different services and levels of insurance against your communications being decryptable. These also come at different costs.

What do they cost?

Depends. There are providers like Letsencypt which provide free domain verified SSL certificates. These are great for most brochure websites mentioned above, and give you enough security for web browsers to call your website secure, and your customers peace of mind. If you are offering e-commerce on your website, or any form of data access which is potentially sensitive, then it is strongly recommended to purchase an SSL certificate provided by a provider that offers insurance, as these providers have high trust relationships with web browsers, and give you support with installation and ongoing security of your setup. Purchased SSL certificates typically start from around $10NZD per year + installation, through to multiple thousands of dollars per year (bank level) – it really depends on what you need the certificate to do.

Do I need it?

Nowadays, yip you really do. You need some form of SSL certificate, be it free or paid, just so your website looks safe out there on the internet. This is even more critical if you are wanting to attract visitors using search engines (you are penalised in ranking if you don’t have one) or you offer online products for purchase (e-commerce). Because you will be accepting user credentials or contact details etc, and in some cases accepting payment details, it is imperative for user security that all communications are secured.

There are also newer web technologies that will only work with SSL connections – things like websockets.

If you need assistance with getting your website secured, or have any issues with SSL certificates, contact the team at Webmad and they can get you all set up.


How to prevent email spam from my website

“Get a website” they said. “It’ll get you heaps of new clients” they said. You’ve invested into a website that acts as online brochure with the aim of bringing in clients and potential sales. Its got a contact form, maybe you have a blog on there to try to show you are still relevant… Isn’t it disheartening when what feels like the only contact you get through the site is spam. It plagues your inbox, it gets filtered to your spam folder, and then you never know what is legitimate or not… Aaaargh!

We hear it a lot. “I’ve started getting a lot of spam from my website…”. Firstly, we are going to go through how on earth all the spam is getting there in the first place, and then we’ll go through a list of preventive tools that you can use to help avoid getting bogged down in the ‘noise’, allowing you to focus on your real clients, ideally without forcing them to jump through hoops to prove they are legitimate.

So… Where is all this spam coming from?

Nowadays, most spam generated on websites comes from automated processes, often referred to as Bots. Basically some clown somewhere decides it’d be great to try to get their message in front of the website owner, or in the case of blogs, even potentially in front of your target audience by getting their comments published in your website. Yeah most of the time you wouldn’t be daft enough to publish their comments, but if someone does, and they get their message / website link hosted on your site, then your SEO helps promote their SEO and they win the battle of Google-sberg. Not ideal for a clean internet. But, that little bot of cheap bot code can be run against hundreds of websites, and keep on trying with no further cost to the people who developed it, and potential for payoff, so the spam keeps rolling in. Small tweaks to the bot code gets around little changes made to try to prevent its effect. So, we’ve got to get smart.

Basic workarounds:

Your standard bot simply reads the code that is used to display a form on your page. It then plucks out all input fields, populates them with some form of content, and fires them back at your website, which then emails the submitted data to you / someone. One of the simplest methods of detecting bogus entries to your site, is simply to add an extra field into your forms, that is hidden from normal users (ie using the css property “display:none” or similar, ideally applied to a class name so that its harder for the bot to recognise it is a hidden field). If you detect if there is content submitted on the hidden field, ie content that got there that no normal user would have been able to fill in, then we can pretty reliably say that the submission is bogus. This type of spam rejection is sometimes called a ‘honeypot’ – the bot sees the lure of another input to fill in, gets its hand in the jar, and is consequently found with honey stuck to it. Poor thing.

Many form plugins for popular web systems allow for honeypot style traps built in, to be enabled on forms you create with their tools – plugins like Gravityforms for WordPress. I’d recommend that when evaluating form plugins, this is a quick win option that helps sway selection of the best fit.

Captcha, Recaptcha, and annoying your users.

Sounds sinister eh? Don’t Captcha me! But what is a Captcha? You’ve likely seen them. Its those funny wee ‘Type the text you see in the image’ questions that you get on some forms, and half of them aren’t even readable, and you just get that little bit frustrated ‘cos its effort. Its not even for your benefit!

So Captcha is the term for those image recognition questions. Why do we have them? Well – because they are hard. Not just for humans – they are really hard for computers to figure out. How do i tell a line or shape from a letter of the alphabet. Humans are great at pattern recognition, especially when trained to do it since around the age of 5. Computers? The harder the image (ie warped text, lots of foreign objects, characters without solid borders etc) the less likely the computer / bot will be able to resolve it to a satisfactory, correct answer. This method works well at preventing spam… but also for putting off legitimate clients, unless they have good enough reason to contact you to move past the hurdles you put in front of them.

So then Google put some weight behind ReCaptcha – a similar concept, but with some extra smarts behind it. Instead of just throwing an image onto the page, it uses some code that is only rendered in the web browser of your visitor, and uses that to then add the verification image, and outsources validation of that image to the ReCaptcha service. Pretty cool stuff. Still a pain to fill in for your users, but doing it this way gives the same powerful tools to more forms systems out there on the web, in a consistent way, and has good rejection rates.

The latest version of ReCaptcha doesn’t show images anymore – either a wee tickbox to tick to show you are a human, or an option to not show anything at all, and just rely on neat detection algorithms. Many websites rely on this method – its not perfect, but it does a pretty good job against most incoming spam.

Are there ways to weed out spam without relying on user entry / client side tricks?

How good of you to ask. Why Yes. Yes there are. There are a number of services out there that you can forward the content of your submitted data to, and they run filters on it and can detect if the content is obvious spam (anyone wanna buy some viagra or cialis?). In the WordPress world the most obvious one is Akismet. The great things about these tools is they can be run retroactively on previous comments in your system to weed out spam from them as well. Very helpful. Another we have had great success with, that allows integration with a variety of web systems is Cleantalk.

These third party filtering systems use learning filters to target the ‘in season’ spam content trends, and block them, so you don’t need to stay on top of them. They aren’t perfect – it is possible you will get some false positive recognitions (legitimate messages that are seen as spam on content analysis alone) but typically they give good interfaces for whitelisting content or users so the systems can learn from their mistakes.

So… What should we do?

The best approach to most problems is multi-faceted. The options represented above all attack spam submissions in different ways. Traps, challenges, and filters. We have found our most reliable setups have been mixtures of each, depending on the context of what we are looking to protect. To prevent spam in blog comments and contact forms / calls to action: a honeypot to catch most of the bots, and cleantalk to catch the ones that get through is a good fit. For user registration forms or user login protection – recaptcha works well as your client already knows they have work to do to get at the goodies in store once they put in the effort to get past your hurdles.

Find what won’t annoy your users, and use that. There is plenty of options out there. Still stuck, or not sure how to implement your changes? I know some people who could help.