Essential PHP Security

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This book review was published by Slashdot, 2006-02-13.

Essential PHP Security

Given the remarkable popularity of PHP for developing dynamic websites, as well as the ever-increasing need for security on those same sites, one would think that there would be great demand for — and comparable supply of — books that explain how to create secure sites using PHP. However, such is not the case, and even the most extensive general purpose PHP books may only devote a single chapter to this critical topic, if that much. Essential PHP Security, written by PHP expert Chris Shiflett, aims to fill the gap.

The book was published by O'Reilly Media, on 13 October 2005, and the ISBN is 978-0596006563. O'Reilly has a Web page for the book, where they offer a sample chapter (Chapter 4: Sessions and Cookies), in PDF format, as well as the book's table of contents, index, errata, and links to the online version of the book, in O'Reilly's Safari service. As of the writing of this review, the confirmed errata is reassuringly sparse, and the unconfirmed errata is nonexistent, which speaks well of the author keeping on top of reader feedback — a worthy quality not shared by all technical writers. The author also has his own website dedicated to the book, where he has posted a table of contents, brief reader reviews, and two free chapters in PDF format: Chapters 2 (Forms and URLs) and 4.

In the book's forward, Andi Gutmans briefly explains how increasing Internet usage has resulted in a corresponding increase in security risks, for individuals and businesses operating online. He also notes that most of the security problems related to PHP-based applications, are not the result of weaknesses in the language itself, but rather in the way that developers have used the language in creating those applications. The intent of the book is to bring together the guidelines and lessons learned for writing secure PHP code, into a single volume. He concludes by noting that most of the principles presented in the book apply equally well to other Web development languages.

The bulk of the book's material is organized into seven chapters, focusing on the following topics: forms and URLs, databases and SQL, sessions and cookies, includes, files and commands, authentication and authorization, and shared hosting. These are preceded by an introduction, which oddly is labeled as a chapter. The true chapters are succeeded by three appendices, which cover the topics of configuration directives, functions, and cryptography. A short index rounds out the volume.

In the introduction, Shiflett presents the security-related PHP features, principles, and best practices that he uses as a foundation throughout the rest of the book, when focusing on the specific PHP topics covered by all of the subsequent chapters. The two features of PHP discussed are: register globals, of which most experienced PHP developers know the dangers, and PHP's error reporting capabilities. The four principles espoused by the author for writing secure PHP systems are: safeguard redundancy, minimum privileges, clarity through simplicity, and minimizing data exposure. The heart of the book appears to be his four recommended practices: tempering usability with security, tracking input and output data, filtering all input, and escaping or encoding output to preserve its meaning.

The seven topic chapters that follow the introduction provide fairly terse coverage of how those principles and practices are put to use, when designing and implementing forms, URLs, SQL commands, sessions, cookies, etc. Each subtopic within them is discussed briefly, and illustrated with code snippets.

If anyone is well-suited to writing such a work, it is Chris Shiflett, a well-known authority on PHP security, a respected contributor to the PHP community, founder and spokesman of the PHP Security Consortium, and founder and President of Brain Bulb, a PHP consulting firm.

In light of the author's expertise, one would presume that he would make every effort to write the definitive volume on PHP security — covering every conceivable topic, including: execution of system commands, verification of user IDs and authorization, e-mail spamming via Web forms, (the related topic of) exclusion of bots, and remote procedure calls. However, Essential PHP Security does not discuss those critical matters specifically. Moreover, the topics chosen are discussed in a rather cursory manner. The code samples throughout the book are generally quite minimal, with little to no explanation as to how they work. In addition, many of the techniques presented are but variations on the theme of "filter user input". These weaknesses may be why the book clocks in at only 109 pages. In fact, the seven core chapters comprise only 71 pages, leaving the reader to wonder how PHP security could possibly be adequately plumbed by such a short treatment.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for terse writing, as wizened fans of Kernighan and Richie's C language classic can attest. In agreement would be any developer who has purchased one of the many 700+ page technical tomes that turn out to be padded with excessive margins, poorly-tested code, and pointless appendices lifted from the respective products' documentation. Perhaps Shiflett intended his book to be more a primer on PHP security, rather than a comprehensive coverage — and hence the title of the book. As such, it would primarily be of value to PHP developers unfamiliar with basic security pitfalls and defenses. Regardless, any PHP developer would be wise to begin with this book as a first step towards PHP security mastery, but even wiser if they were to follow it up with more substantial works, as well as keeping current by reading security-focused websites and other current publications.

Copyright © 2006 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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