Web hosting provides individuals and businesses with storage space and computing resources to host their websites and web applications online. While convenient, web hosting also introduces vulnerabilities that malicious actors can exploit to compromise websites. As more business is conducted online, the security of hosted websites and applications becomes increasingly important.
Some common web hosting vulnerabilities include misconfigurations, out-of-date software, weak passwords, lack of encryption, cross-site scripting flaws, SQL injection vulnerabilities, and more. Fortunately, there are steps website owners can take to secure their sites and protect their data and visitors. This article will explore common web hosting vulnerabilities and provide best practices to harden website security.
One of the most prevalent web hosting vulnerabilities stems from misconfigurations in the server environment. Web servers, databases, platforms, frameworks, and other components often come with default settings and configurations aimed at ease-of-use rather than security. However, leaving systems in their default state leaves them open to compromise.
Some common misconfiguration issues include:
- Using default or weak passwords for admin accounts
- Leaving unnecessary ports open to the internet
- Allowing directory listing to expose file structure
- Enabling unwanted HTTP methods
- Not limiting system resource usage
- Using default SSL/TLS settings rather than hardened configurations
To avoid misconfigurations, website owners should change all default passwords, close unused ports, disable directory listings, limit HTTP methods to those required for functionality, restrict system resources, and apply crypto best practices for SSL/TLS. Staying on top of patches and updates can also address vulnerabilities introduced by outdated software configurations.
Outdated Software Vulnerabilities
The software powering a website – including the operating system, web server, databases, applications, and third party plugins/themes – requires constant maintenance and updating to address weaknesses and fix bugs. However, many websites run outdated software riddled with known vulnerabilities that have had patches available for months or even years.
With the fast pace of development on the web, software projects constantly put out new releases. If web administrators fall behind on updates, they end up exposing their websites to any flaws addressed in newer versions. Hackers are well aware of public vulnerability databases and target websites running outdated software.
To avoid exposures from outdated systems, web hosting providers should have defined processes to promptly patch operating systems and software dependencies across their fleets. Website owners need to have disciplined update procedures for core platforms like content management systems along with any installed plugins, themes, and custom code. Test suites and staging environments can help validate that patches and upgrades don’t break website functionality.
Password weaknesses represent one of the simplest yet most prevalent security issues plaguing websites. Developers often focus so much on functionality that they neglect access controls, hardening authentication systems, or changing default credentials. Weak admin passwords provide an easy inroad for attackers to gain access and take over hosting accounts.
Weaknesses stem from insufficient password complexity rules, allowing overly simplistic or common passwords like “123456” or “password”. Storing password hashes without adequate salting or hashing algorithms also lowers the bar for cracking credentials. Reused or default passwords further simplify access for criminals.
Proper password hygiene is imperative for securing web hosting environments. All default passwords should be changed immediately on new servers and user accounts. Strong complexity requirements ought to enforce minimum length, alphanumeric and special characters, and ban of common passwords. Proper salting and hashing using algorithms like Argon2, scrypt, bcrypt, or PBKDF2 helps thwart cracking attempts. Multifactor authentication provides another layer of protection.
Lack of Encryption
Failure to utilize encryption opens websites to information disclosure, tampering, eavesdropping, and spoofing attacks. Encryption provides fundamental protections for sensitive data and communications. But websites frequently forego encryption whether from lack of awareness or concern over implementation costs.
Common exposures from missing encryption include:
- Serving pages over unencrypted HTTP rather than HTTPS
- Not using secure cookies or enforcing cookie attributes
- Failing to encrypt database connections and sensitive records
- Lack of encryption for backups, exports, and data in transit
- Allowing weak cipher suites and TLS versions
Enabling HTTPS via a trusted SSL/TLS certificate eliminates many of these risks. All data, cookies, and connections should be encrypted in transit and at rest. Disallowing weak ciphers and TLS versions prevents downgrade attacks. Hashed Site Tokens and Certificate Transparency provide added SSL/TLS hardening. Web hosting providers shoulder much of this responsibility, but website owners must confirm proper implementation.
Cross-Site Scripting Flaws
Cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerabilities arise when applications fail to properly sanitize user-controllable input before outputting it. Attackers can abuse these flaws to inject malicious client-side scripts into web pages viewed by other users.
Stored XSS – where the malicious script persists in a database – is particularly dangerous. But reflected and DOM-based XSS can still enable attacks like stealing user session cookies or performing actions as victims. Persistent XSS provides a launchpad for compromising browsers and spreading malware.
SQL Injection Vulnerabilities
Many websites employ relational databases like MySQL, PostgreSQL, or Microsoft SQL to power content management, ecommerce, analytics, and more. But improperly handled user input passed to these databases can open the door to SQL injection attacks.
By inserting malicious SQL syntax and queries, attackers can trick the database into executing unintended commands. This allows bypassing authentication, extracting or modifying data, altering configuration, or issuing denial of service. In some cases, SQL injection enables operating system command execution.
Input validation, prepared statements, query parameterization, and escaping special characters are key defenses against SQL injection. Limiting account privileges minimizes damage from any successful attack. Web application firewalls can also detect and block SQL injection signatures. Keeping frameworks, ORM tools, and databases patched eliminates many exploitable SQL flaws.
Remote Code Execution Risks
Remote code execution represents an advanced threat whereby attackers manage to run arbitrary malicious code on a web server. If achieved, remote code execution hands the server over to the attacker for further compromise.
Several web hosting vulnerabilities open the door to possible remote code execution:
- Kernel or operating system vulnerabilities
- Outdated web server software with RCE flaws
- Insecure file uploads allowing executable uploads
- Vulnerable application plugins, extensions, and themes
- Abusing interpreter environments like PHP, Python, Perl
- Leveraging server-side request forgery (SSRF)
Hardening the OS and limiting interpreters reduces the attack surface for RCE. Patches, custom firewall rules, malware scanning, and extension whitelists help mitigate risks. Monitoring logs, memory, and filesystem for anomalies can detect compromise attempts. Multi-layered security provides the best defense against advanced remote code execution threats.
Hackers increasingly leverage amplification techniques to perpetrate distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks capable of taking down websites. Amplification attacks reflect and amplify benign traffic to flood networks and servers.
Vulnerable protocols like DNS, NTP, SNMP, Chargen, and Memcached allow small requests to trigger much larger responses. With access to misconfigured servers, attackers spoof the victim IP and send queries triggering amplified traffic aimed at overloading the target.
Proper server hardening disables unused protocols and services. Rate limiting and firewall rules can detect and block anomalous amplification traffic. DDoS protection services scrub attack traffic, though on-premises mitigation provides the fastest response. Monitoring for traffic spikes can help identify amplification attacks.
Even with technical safeguards in place, the human factor introduces another web hosting vulnerability. If a cybercriminal manages to compromise an admin or user account through phishing, brute force, or other means, they inherit its privileges to access and abuse the hosting environment.
Access controls and the principle of least privilege limit damage from compromised accounts. Monitoring user behavior helps detect anomalous activity indicative of a compromised account. Multifactor authentication and active blocking of brute force login attempts thwart account takeovers.
Education makes users less susceptible to phishing and credential theft. Digital security programs need to factor the human element alongside technical defenses.
Insufficient Logging and Monitoring
Website owners often struggle to detect the active hacking attempts and vulnerabilities threatening their hosting environments because of inadequate logging and monitoring. The lack of visibility makes it far easier for attackers to fly under the radar.
Robust logging requires collecting and centrally aggregating syslogs, web server logs, firewall blocks, authentication events, file integrity data, and more. Logs fill gaps that individual security controls can’t provide. Carefully tuned log monitoring and analytics leverages machine learning to highlight high-risk threats.
Active monitoring further detects issues through webpage changes, uptime monitoring, performance measurements, and transaction testing. IT teams need visibility into website availability, changes, traffic patterns, and responsiveness to spot signs of trouble.
Shared Hosting Risks
Opting for shared hosting introduces indirect vulnerabilities from other customers on the same servers. While convenient and affordable, shared hosting creates a lateral danger from insecure websites running alongside your own.
Lack of segregation allows vulnerabilities or compromises from neighboring sites to jeopardize others on shared infrastructure. Containers and proper path isolation help limit risks from shared hosting, though dedicated servers remain the safest option.
The convenience versus security tradeoff requires evaluating whether shared hosting fits long-term website goals. As sites grow more complex and business-critical, dedicated hosting and servers provide the best security posture.
Supply Chain Weaknesses
Third party web hosting services and extensions themselves pose a threat when their own security practices are lax. Supply chain attacks jump from exposed vendors and partners to their customers.
Vendor risk management helps assess security risks from web hosting providers like availability, incident response, and compliance. Code audits and reviews should evaluate third party plugins and components before integration.
Monitoring vendor disclosures allows responding quickly to exposed dependencies. Diversifying vendors limits supply chain risks while still gaining best-of-breed solutions. The security of integrated third parties directly impacts the website.
Insufficient Incident Response
Despite best efforts, websites will suffer security incidents like compromised accounts, data leaks, defacements, and malware. Lacking an incident response plan exacerbates the damage and recovery time from such events.
Incident response provides a structured approach for containment, eradication and recovery from security events. Having an incident response plan speeds decision making and response when rapid action is required. Knowing the right contacts, steps, and procedures avoids wasted effort during an emergency.
Testing and refining the incident response plan ensures effectiveness. Having backup and disaster recovery systems in place allows recovering compromised or damaged assets. Investing in incident readiness eases the pain when inevitable events occur.
Insecure Disaster Recovery
Website owners often neglect contemplating disasters which can quickly put sites out of commission. Events like fires, floods, earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, and power failures can impact even resilient web hosting environments.
Lacking adequate disaster recovery and high availability protections makes prolonged outages inevitable in a catastrophe. Yet few sites implement adequate redundancy, backups, failover, and Business Continuity provisions.
A comprehensive disaster recovery plan considers redundant infrastructure, regular off-site backups, endpoint protection, availability failover, and alternative hosting. Drills ensure teams understand disaster response procedures. No website can afford a “come what may” attitude toward disaster recovery.
Inadequate Access Controls
Overly permissive access controls enable insider threats when employees, contractors, or partners abuse privileges. But incomplete access controls also hamper defenses by failing to restrict unauthorized access. Both excessive and insufficient access undermine security.
Examples of faulty access controls include:
- Overprovisioned user and admin privileges
- Lack of separation of duties
- Failure to revoke ex-employee access
- Not disabling default accounts
- No login rate limiting or source IP whitelisting
- Shared or weak account credentials
Access should follow the principle of least privilege tailored to specific roles. Automated provisioning, deprovisioning, and permission review workflows prevent accumulation of superfluous access over time. Authentication enhancements and layered access controls further strengthen defenses.
Known vulnerabilities linger longer than necessary on many websites due to lack of awareness or patching delays. Attackers take advantage of publicly disclosed flaws and exposures before site operators remediate them.
Regular vulnerability scans assess sites for security gaps and outdated software requiring upgrades. Integrating scans with help desk systems ensures IT addresses found issues. Dynamic application security testing during development identifies vulnerabilities for remediation.
Prioritizing patch management and upgrades shortens vulnerability windows. Monitoring security advisories raises awareness of new threats. Staying on top of remediation protects websites from obvious holes inviting compromise.
Weak Physical Security
While the cloud has advantages for scalability, cost, and uptime, some organizations still retain on-premises servers. Physical security represents a foundational layer directly impacting server and data center safety.
Yet organizations often overlook physical risks:
- Lack of restricted access via access cards and biometrics
- Minimal CCTV monitoring and activity logging
- Inadequate environmental controls for temperature, fire, and moisture
- No sensors to detect water leakage, smoke, or airborne contaminants
- Unsecured open ports, USB, and optical drives
Data center physical hardening includes defenses like mantraps, fencing, crash rails, cameras, smart locks, sensors, and on-site guards. Server cabinets use lock and sensors with multi-layer physical access controls. Physical security remains crucial even in the cloud era.
Lacking a Web Application Firewall
Web application firewalls (WAF) provide deep defenses against web attacks that perimeter firewalls miss. Traditional firewalls filter at lower network and transport layers. WAFs analyze web traffic at the application layer for SQL injection, XSS, parameter tampering, directory traversal, and other web app threats.
The specialized security insights allow blocking application-layer attacks that evade standard firewalls. A WAF helps defend sites from new and emerging vulnerabilities until code fixes are implemented. WAF rules also encode security best practices.
Cloud WAF services like AWS WAF bring managed WAF protections without hardware overhead. On-premise WAF appliances also available for internal networks. Given the prevalence of website attacks, WAFs are indispensable for threat protection.
Minimal Cybersecurity Training
Technology alone cannot fully secure websites. Employees and insiders require training to uphold strong security practices and avoid lapses enabling threats like phishing, social engineering, and unauthorized access.
Developers in particular need application security training to avoid introducing vulnerabilities in new code. IT teams also benefit from hands-on cybersecurity education to bolster defenses in areas like encryption, access controls, patching, and monitoring.
Annual security awareness programs ought to educate all employees on risks and responsibilities. More advanced certifications and cybersecurity drills hone skills for technical teams. Prioritizing education fortifies website security from the inside out.
This exploration of common web hosting vulnerabilities elucidates the breadth of risks facing websites, including misconfigurations, outdated software, weak passwords, unencrypted data, injection flaws, denial of service, remote code execution, and more. Thankfully, webmasters have many options to safeguard systems, stop attacks, and meet compliance obligations.
Implementing security best practices around access controls, hardening servers, patching vigilantly, enabling HTTPS, sanitizing untrusted input, securing accounts with MFA, monitoring extensively, restricting unnecessary access, ensuring continuity, and training employees goes a long way toward website security.
By understanding and addressing risks, web hosting providers and website owners can secure their systems against even skilled hackers. With web traffic and threats increasing, proactive precautions ensure website availability, integrity, and safety for visitors.