Real-World PHP Security

Understanding the most common security threats to PHP applications is the first step to securing yours.

During the past two years, the core PHP developers have done an incredible job of providing the PHP user community with powerful technology that has been able to perform remarkably well in many environments. As Web applications become more popular, Web developers must face an increasing amount of possible security vulnerabilities that have the potential to compromise their work seriously. Many tutorials, books and articles have been published as new techniques are developed. These new emerging threats, however, have not received the focus they deserve.

This article is aimed at professional and open-source PHP developers who must provide a high level of security to their users or clients. The intent of this article is not to provide the developer with a question-and-answer approach but to help the developer identify possible security issues in their own applications during the design process. In the long run, this process enables you, the PHP developer, to respond to new security threats accordingly.

Many articles have covered the subject of secure PHP development, and the same topics usually are covered by every article. Here, I quickly go over those basic concepts because they are important, but I assume you are familiar with this material so I won't spend too much time on it.


PHP provides users with a configuration directive called register_globals that, when enabled, places every variable in the application in the global scope. This means that variables passed to the Web server as POST, GET, cookies and session all are placed in the same basket, providing a convenient way for the developer to retrieve those values.

By design, enabling this directive is likely to affect the overall security of your application, because users gain direct access to the content of any variable you may use in your application. PHP now ships with register_globals turned off by default, and I strongly recommend leaving it at that setting for the sake of security. The exception would be if your server also hosts legacy applications that assume this directive is turned on.

Cross-Site Scripting

Cross-site scripting (XSS) is a popular technique that allows the user to gain control over the layout, content and overall reliability and security of Web applications. PHP is not the only technology vulnerable to this technique, mostly because it is not really a flaw in the language. Instead, it is more of a concept pertaining to the design of Web applications in general.

Cross-site scripting exists in many different forms, but a popular method is to inject HTML or JavaScript code in form fields in order to make your application display content that otherwise should not be displayed. This concept illustrates the importance of always filtering any kind of input for your application, whether it comes from a user, another site or even from the database. The PHP function htmlentities() is generally a good way of preventing this type of attack.

GET Variables

Having the ability to provide users with a URL they can use to get back to where they are later on is critical for most Web applications. But as a developer, it is important to be able to determine what information the user should be able to access in any possible way. By manipulating the content of the query string, the user gains the ability to modify the content of the variables used by your application.

Preventing this type of event from happening is more complex than simply filtering the input, but this is still a step in the right direction. What is perhaps the most reliable way to secure your applications against this type of attack is setting up a robust data-flow scheme for your application and a solid error-control system.

SQL Injection

This type of malicious attack on a Web application can have devastating consequences that go beyond the scope of most other attacks, such as cross-site scripting, because it has the potential to destroy your database and its content permanently and completely.

The concept of SQL injection is quite simple. Most Web applications accept parameters as input from POST and GET variables and from cookies. This input often is used inside an SQL query as a parameter, thus providing the user with dynamic content. If the user has any idea of what your database looks like, they technically should be able to alter the parameters you use to inject SQL commands in to your query.

Let's look at a quick example. Your application accepts data from a form as POST. The goal is to display x records from the database, where users can modify x to fit their needs. Therefore, your form simply has a field called NUM that provides your script with that value. Listing 1 illustrates this process. In this case, a user could forge an HTML form that would send a carefully crafted value that in turn, would empty your table.