Did Websense Want to Leave Websites Vulnerable to Being Exploited?

Since we discussed that Websense’s claims of a vulnerability in WordPress 3.2.1 were baseless they have updated to their post to basically admit that the infections had nothing to do with WordPress. What is more curious about the update is that they now claim that they actually originally suspected a vulnerability in WordPress plugins not WordPress 3.2.1 was leading to the infections. This doesn’t match up with the previous claims or the press coverage the claims received. The new claim does seem to be a poor attempt to explain away their previous false claims, but if they actually believed that the infections were due to plugin vulnerabilities then the advice they gave webmaster on how protect themselves would have continued to leave the vulnerable websites open to being exploited.

Let’s take a look at some key sections of the post’s update.

Not All Running WordPress 3.2.1

After obtaining access to logs and PHP files from compromised Web servers, further analysis indicates that most of the compromised Web sites were running older versions of WordPress, but they were not all running 3.2.1.

This doesn’t make much sense. The logs and PHP files related to the infection would give only basic information, if any, on what software the website is running. If you wanted to know what they were running you could get more information by looking at the websites.

As we mentioned in the previously there appears to be a serious problem with how Websense identified infected websites that lead them to only find websites running WordPress 3.2.1 to be infected. This would also bias the selection of logs and PHP files they reviewed and would have led them to continue have an over-weighted sample of websites running WordPress and WordPress 3.2.1 in their sample.

Source of the Infections

The attackers’ exact point of entry is uncertain.

Now that we have access to data from several compromised Web servers, the logs show us that, in some cases, the point of entry was compromised FTP credentials. In several instances, once attackers had access, they scanned WordPress directories and injected specific files (e.g., index.php and wp-blog-header.php) with malicious PHP code.

Somehow the point entry is unknown, but they also our say that they found the entry point in at least some cases was through compromised FTP credentials. They don’t make many mention of finding any other entry point. If the websites were infected through compromised FTP credentials, which seems fairly likely possibility, that means the infection has nothing to do with WordPress. In what seems to be an attempt to try give the impression of a link between the infection and WordPress they mentioned the attackers scanned WordPress directories and infected a WordPress specific file. We know that the infection has infected websites not running WordPress so they attacker would have scanned the directories whether they were related to WordPress or not. index.php is a generic file that exists in any websites programmed in PHP, so that specific file would be a target no matter what PHP based software is running. Why bring up WordPress other than to try to make it still seem like this is something strongly related to WordPress when it pretty clearly is general issue that would have impacted websites running any software?

Suspected Plugin Vulnerabilities?

 At first, we suspected vulnerable WordPress plugins, because a subset of analyzed sites were running vulnerable versions of the same WordPress plugins.

This claim that they originally believed that websites were exploited due to vulnerable WordPress plugins just doesn’t line up with the originally posting at all. The most relevant portion of the original post:

Based on my analysis, the site was compromised because it was running an old version of WordPress (3.2.1) that is vulnerable to publicly available exploits [1] [2].

You don’t get much clearer than that. If they believed that this was a plugin issue then it wouldn’t have mattered what version of WordPress was running as the vulnerability would exploitable as long as you are running plugin. You could be running WordPress 3.3.1, WordPress 3.2.1, or any other version and it would make any difference only if you had the plugin installed. Yet the original post repeatedly mentioned WordPress 3.2.1 and never mentioned plugins at all. The title of the post is “3-2-1 WordPress vulnerability leads to possible new exploit kit “, the list of traits for the infection mentions WordPress 3.2.1, there is a section of the post titled “What To Do If You Are Running WordPress 3.2.1″.

SC Magazine reported that a WordPress 3.2.1 vulnerability was to blame:

The attacks are taking advantage of website owners who are hosting an older — and vulnerable — version of WordPress, 3.2.1, which was updated in December but is still widely in use.

The reason for bringing up plugins now, seems to be because we pointed out the claimed vulnerabilities they cited as WordPress 3.2.1 were in fact vulnerabilities in plugins. We previously mentioned how it looks like those plugins vulnerabilities got confused to be WordPress 3.2.1 vulnerabilities (try this search).

If they believed that it was plugins then those plugin exploits they cited don’t make sense. When we looked some of the websites they listed in their sample of infected websites, none of them were running those plugins. The type of vulnerability, a blind SQL injection, which was claimed in those plugins, isn’t something that would be likely to be used in this type of hack.

Websense’s Advice

For the sake argument let’s say that they actually believed the vulnerability was due to WordPress plugins. The way to protect websites from this would be for the vulnerability in the plugins to be fixed or for the plugins to be removed. Which did Websense suggest be done? Neither, remember they never even mentioned plugins in the post. Instead their advice was:

If you have been infected, be sure to upgrade WordPress while simultaneously removing the injected code so that your Web pages aren’t simply being reinfected after being cleaned.

Upgrading WordPress would have no impact on the vulnerability in plugins, they would have been just as vulnerable as before. Even if you assume they meant that the plugins should be upgraded along with WordPress, it wouldn’t have done anything as plugins they were citing did not have updates available to fix the vulnerabilities. (We will be discussing this in more detail soon, but it is worth mentioning here that both of these plugins have been removed from the WordPress.org Plugin Directory, one of the reasons plugins get removed is for security issues that have not been fixed. You can use our new WordPress plugin, No Longer in Directory, which checks if installed plugins have been removed from the WordPress.org Plugin Directory to warn about such situations.) So why would Websense have wanted the websites to remain vulnerable? We certainly can’t think of a reason why they would want to do that. The reasonable explanation for this is that the advice was based on their belief that there was a vulnerability WordPress 3.2.1, not in plugins as they came up with later to try cover for their false claims, and upgrading WordPress would have fixed the vulnerability.