Category: Hacking

Yesterday's Attack

Noah Petherbridge
Posted by Noah Petherbridge on Thursday, August 27 2009 @ 07:15:31 AM
Here are some more details concerning yesterday's attack on my server.

I got to the office and checked my e-mail and saw that TekTonic (my web hosting company) forwarded an e-mail to me that was sent to their abuse department from another sysadmin, saying that my server's IP has been caught brute-forcing SSH passwords on their server.

So I logged into my server to check things out. My guesses at this point were either: somebody on my server has a weak SSH password, and one of those automated password-guessing bots has cracked it and their account got pwned; or else somebody on my server had something insecure on their site, such as a PHP app or some SSI code, that got compromised and used to attack my server.

After pruning the SSH logs and seeing nothing suspicious, I noticed that the Apache web service was down (so all sites on the server were offline). Apache's been doing this at random intervals so I didn't think much of it just yet and started Apache back up, and then thought to check its global error log file.

Apart from the usual errors that Apache logs here (404 Not Found, etc.) there was other text in the log file that was the output of some commands that would be run at a terminal. Commands like wget (to download files off the Internet), chmod (there were some errors like "chmod: invalid mode 'x'" indicating a badly entered chmod command), and perl (attempting to execute a Perl script).

From reading this in the error log it became apparent that somebody was causing Apache (or at least the user that Apache runs as) to execute system commands. With that, they downloaded a tarball containing exploits from a Geocities site, a tarball containing a backdoor/trojan, and a tarball containing something that they used to "phone home" - probably to make the process of entering commands on my server easier.

In Apache's access log file I was able to see how they were doing this; they were abusing a flaw in phpMyAdmin that allowed them to execute these commands. So, I was right: somebody had a PHP application on their site and this app was used to break into the server. But that somebody was me. :(

So, I was able to see what HTTP requests they were making that was causing phpMyAdmin to execute their commands, and therefore I was able to see all the commands they entered -- or rather, the ones they entered by abusing phpMyAdmin. If the phone home script was indeed used to execute additional commands, they could've run even more after that point (I'm assuming they did, because the initial e-mail I got was about my server guessing SSH passwords on another, and nothing that happened through phpMyAdmin was responsible for that).

I later found out from TekTonic that when they first got the complaint they logged in and killed the Apache-owned process that was brute forcing the SSH passwords. This would explain why Apache was down when I logged in. But the fact that this hacker was running additional commands through the backdoor script that I have no logs of made me decide that reimaging the server would be the best solution. I used to work at a web hosting company and when a customer server got pwned, reinstalling the operating system was the only way to be sure no rootkits were left behind -- especially considering that rootkits these days are pretty crafty and can hide from being listed in the running processes.

I e-mailed the abuse departments at Geocities telling them that one of their users is hosting backdoors and the abuse department of the ISP that controls the IP address of the hacker who broke into my server. Hopefully further action will be done on their parts. The hacker probably won't be found (hackers tend to go through proxy servers like there's no tomorrow), but hopefully whatever server that IP address belongs to can be fixed to prevent further use by the hacker to attack other servers.

This is why I don't like PHP. The exploit in phpMyAdmin was because phpMyAdmin has a PHP file that directly runs system commands based on a query string parameter. This file isn't meant to be executed directly (it's named with a ".inc.php" extension, indicating it was intended to be included by another PHP script and not run directly over the web). But this file was available directly over the web, AND it accepted query string parameters, AND executed those on the system. Terrible! In Perl this kind of thing would never fly. If you did request a Perl included file directly, it wouldn't read your query string parameters, because normally the Perl script that includes it would've done that already.

PHP has too many newbies, and newbies write terrible code. phpMyAdmin could've been smarter than this, but the fact that this happens shows that phpMyAdmin wasn't coded very well at all, probably because its coders are incompetent PHP kiddies.

Anyway, this time around, PHP is NOT installed on my server AT ALL. And if anybody on my server asks for it, to get something like WordPress installed for instance, I'll just kindly point them to MovableType as a Perl alternative to WordPress. WordPress might be a decent PHP application, but it's still a PHP application and I officially will not trust any PHP app written by anyone other than real programmers to be installed on this server again.

PHP programmers who only program PHP basically can be assumed to be completely incompetent and to build in gaping, shameless security holes like what phpMyAdmin had: a script that directly sends query string parameters into a system command unfiltered. PHP programmers who know other programming languages that aren't as newbish as PHP (Perl, for instance) are probably better at coding secure PHP, but besides that I am officially boycotting PHP coders and their applications.

Server Hacked

Noah Petherbridge
Posted by Noah Petherbridge on Wednesday, August 26 2009 @ 11:59:07 AM
At 5:00 AM this morning the server that hosts and my dozen other domains was hacked. The attacker exploited a vulnerability in a PHP application on one of the sites on the server and used it to execute arbitrary commands on the server.

From my time spent working at a web hosting company, I know that the best way to be sure yer server isn't infected with a rootkit is to reinstall the operating system completely. So, that's what happened, and all in all it meant a few hours of downtime. I'm currently restoring all the sites on the server. is mainly fully restored now, except the traffic monitoring code isn't put back in place yet so ya won't be able to see how many hits the site's getting just yet.


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