Open Source CMS Security Risks

The initial free cost of an open source CMS may quickly mount up to damage your brand or leave you facing penalties for a data privacy violation. 

Open Source CMS Security Risks

Randy Apuzzo 10.13.2021

Business leaders and IT managers face a daunting challenge when considering choosing a CMS, particularly when it comes to cost and ease of use. Because open source CMS is free, many prefer it over proprietary CMS. Sadly, security concerns tend to fall to the back of the line. Open source CMS platforms are often susceptible to different kinds of vulnerabilities and attacks. 

According to WhiteSource’s 2021 Open Source Security Vulnerabilities Report, the number of reported security vulnerabilities in open source software rose by more than 50% in 2020.

Putting it in context, that initial free cost may quickly mount up to damage your brand or leave you facing regulatory penalties for a data privacy violation. 

In this article, you’ll learn about the security risks in open source CMS and discover why proprietary CMS is a better choice.

Open source CMS vs. Proprietary CMS

Open source CMS represents freely available content management systems that you can modify, extend, and use to build applications. Unlike proprietary CMS, you can easily make changes to an open source software to provide the functionality you want. In that regard, you won’t have to wait for upgrades, patching, vulnerability fixes, or features additions. Similarly, you won’t be locked into the CMS, meaning you can extend it with any available third-party software you like.

Proprietary CMS is not free. While this might seem like a disadvantage for the business manager looking to save a buck, they offer several other perks that make it worth every penny. In this CMS, the vendor handles all the upgrades, patching, security fixes, saving you time and money in the long run. 

For any business aiming for high reliability and availability, security is crucial. Open source software is naturally prone to vulnerability. A single vulnerability can lead to a large-scale attack on your entire infrastructure. That is because there’s hardly anyone responsible or accountable for securing the software. If there’s a vulnerability within the system, you’ll have to deal with it yourself, taking time away from more primary duties.

Anji Taylor, a digital strategist, explains the risks of not having professional help with an open source CMS like WordPress, “WP Multi-site would need to be installed and managed by folks that are familiar with it. The number of pages and stakeholders heightens the need for increased security and potential for hacks, etc., so additional efforts would be required to ensure the site is truly secure.”

Security Risks in Open Source CMS

As previously mentioned, open source CMS faces several security risks that can be damaging for your brand. To secure your application, here’s a list of CMS security vulnerabilities to keep an eye on.

SQL Injection

Injection attacks are one of the oldest and most common security vulnerabilities, according to the OWASP Top 10. In an injection attack, a hacker inserts untrusted code into a query or command, resulting in the execution of malicious code without validation. Successful injection can lead to data breaches, user impersonation, or other damaging attacks on your internal infrastructure.

Unapplied Updates and Patches

Every upgrade or patch provides an improvement on the CMS. That can be a fix on a particular security issue or vulnerability. In addition to that, you can get additional features and updates of third-party libraries connected to the software. Companies using open source software are notoriously known to ignore or delay feature updates or security patches while still using the application. 

The truth is, an unapplied update can be a vulnerable avenue for attackers to gain access to your application. Proprietary CMS vendors typically help to handle all upgrades, patching, and maintenance. Even with that, these upgrades are done only after thorough security tests by professionals and cybersecurity specialists.

Brute Force

Brute force attacks have long been an issue. It began as an attempt to bypass encrypted data in the absence of other alternatives. It’s similar to trying different combinations on a lock. Brute force attacks can take several forms. For instance, a hacker can try different usernames and passwords to gain unauthorized access.

Brute force attacks happen when there’s no proper encryption pattern or protection in place or if a login form provides an unlimited number of attempts. WordPress--an open source CMS-- is highly susceptible to this kind of attack.

Cross-site Scripting

Cross-site scripting is another vulnerability that has been on the OWASP Top 10 list for the last few years. With this kind of attack, a hacker attempts to inject and execute a client-side script like JavaScript into an application without proper validation or encoding. Although similar to an injection attack, it takes place in the victim’s browser allowing them to access session cookies.

Since most vulnerabilities result from errors in source codes, open source software is more vulnerable, with several developers contributing to its codebase. You don’t know what you’ll get. With proprietary CMS, vendors are responsible for all security risks via regular updates and support, as well as reliable third-party integrations.

SEO Spam

With this attack, hackers take advantage of your search engine ranking and reputation to redirect users to their page instead of yours. It may even lead to the search engine blacklisting your website.

Themes and Plugins

With open source CMSs, you can customize your website to your taste, thanks to dozens of community themes and extensions provided by developers and designers. But without the proper security measures, these integrations can be an entry point for all kinds of attacks. Naturally, there’s no guarantee that a plugin is secure, but CMS vendors vet and check every available integration point.

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS)

The purpose of a Denial of Service (DoS) attack is to overload the webserver with requests, making it very slow, causing it to crash. Overloaded servers become inaccessible to users due to the volume of requests. DDoS is a more sophisticated version of DoS.

While a DoS attack comes from a single source, a DDoS attack is more organized, executing through multiple automated machines. That way, the hacker can hide traffic origin and increase traffic volume.

Protecting Against CMS Security Vulnerabilities

When you choose a proprietary CMS, you can rely on the expertise and experience of the vendor. When there’s a vulnerability, they’ll be on hand to patch it up and mitigate the situation before it affects your user’s digital experience. To defend and protect your applications against CMS vulnerabilities, you can take the following measures:

  • Regularly check for updates and patch all vulnerabilities in your CMS, including all third party plugins and themes

  • Ensure to run regular backups of all data stores in your CMS.

  • To avoid attacks such as SQL injection attacks, use parameterized queries and validate all user inputs

  • Ensure to maintain and use a strong username and password combinations on your admin area and server. Keep your passwords secure by encrypting them and changing them regularly, as well as avoid reusing them.

  • Secure the connection between your web server and client by installing SSL on your server

  • Subscribe to a channel or blog to get updated information on the latest vulnerabilities

  • Add an extra level of security by using secure authentication plugins or two-factor authentication (2FA)

  • Regularly scan and conduct penetration tests using an automated testing tool on your CMS website

For more security best practices and guidelines, have a look at Zesty.io’s Microservices Security Best Practices.

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Randy Apuzzo photo

Randy Apuzzo

Founder & CTO, Zesty.io

Randy has had a penchant for computer programming from an early age and started applying his skills to build business software in 2004. Randy's stack of skills range from programming, system architecture, business know-how, to typographic design; which lends to a truly customer-centric and business effective software design. He leads... Learn More

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