Getting Started with mod_security

The first steps toward securing your Web site with the versatile mod_security Apache module.

Note the blank lines between filter groups. I inserted these to illustrate that appending the string chain to the end of a filter links it to the next one, such that the last filter in the chain will be evaluated only if the request first matches all prior filters in the chain. In this sense, chain is a little like an if-then statement.

The first pair of filters in Listing 3 checks to see whether the request is not a GET or a HEAD request; if not, it then checks to see if the request contains anything other than form data (content-type "application/x-www-form-urlencoded") or an uploaded file (encoding-type "multipart/form-data"), which are the only two types of encoding mod_security can parse. If both filters match, that is, the request isn't form data or a file, the request is denied (see SecFilterDefaultAction in Listing 1).

Note that our actual filter values ("!^(GET|HEAD)$" and "!(^application/x-www-form-urlencoded$|^multipart/form-data;)") are regular expressions. It's impossible for you to create your own custom filters unless you're comfortable with regular expressions; if you aren't, you may want to see Jeffrey Friedl's book Mastering Regular Expressions, 2nd edition (O'Reilly Media, 2002).

The second pair of filters in Listing 3 first checks to see if the request is a POST request. If so, it then checks to see whether the HTTP parameter Content-Length is set to null; if so, the request is rejected. POST requests are supposed to have proper lengths; if the length is null, this almost certainly suggests an attack of some kind.

Our last example filter, which unlike the first two is a single-line filter, protects us from non-null values for the HTTP parameter Transfer-Encoding. In other words, we want Transfer-Encoding to be set to null in HTTP requests, because the most common thing to set this to is chunked, which is practically never necessary but has been associated with attacks in the past.

Finally, we end with an </IfModule tag to indicate that we're done specifying mod_security parameters. In practice, the statements in Listings 1–3 would be in a single contiguous block; I split them into three groups only for readability.

If you prefer to maintain your mod_security settings in a special file, such as mod_security.conf, you can use an include statement within httpd.conf or apache2.conf, for example:

Include /etc/apache2/mod_security.conf

Enabling mod_security

Once you've configured mod_security in httpd.conf or apache2.conf, you're ready to enable it. In the case of Apache 1.x, your httpd.conf needs to contain the line:

LoadModule security_module libexec/

and possibly also:

AddModule mod_security.c

If you run Apache 2.x, your apache2.conf file needs the line:

LoadModule security_module modules/

This is true unless you run Debian and installed its mod_security deb packages, in which case you need to run only the following command (as root) from a command prompt:

a2enmod mod-security

Once mod_security is enabled, you need to restart Apache in order to load the module. After you do this, be sure to test your Web applications to make sure you didn't Denial-of-Service attack yourself via your mod_security configuration!


With that, you should be ready to explore some more-advanced filters that watch specifically for requests that your site shouldn't expect to see. I strongly encourage you to take this next step; although I think this article should have given you a good starting point, you can find examples of much more powerful filters in the “ModSecurity For Apache User Guide” and other documents on the Web site. Good luck, and stay safe!

Resources for this article: /article/8744.

Mick Bauer ( is Network Security Architect for one of the US's largest banks. He is the author of the O'Reilly book Linux Server Security, 2nd edition (formerly called Building Secure Servers With Linux), an occasional presenter at information security conferences and composer of the “Network Engineering Polka”.



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mod_security rules that allow OTRS to run

Jason Sjobeck's picture

Any one care to share their rules for securing but still allowing OTRS to run. We are using OTRS as our ticketing system but the default config' for mod_security blocks attachments & uploads & a handful of other action. We would like to have the best of both of these applications.



Sjobeck Integration Professionals