Security Experts:

WordPress 5.2 Brings New Security Features

WordPress released version 5.2 of the popular content management system (CMS) this week, which includes new security and stability features. 

Named “Jaco,” the update is already available in the WordPress dashboard, and provides administrators with the ability to fix sites much easier than before, in the event something goes wrong. 

Version 5.2 includes more robust tools for identifying and fixing common configuration issues, and also adds space where developers can include debugging information for site maintainers.

It also comes with PHP Error Protection, a feature to fix and manage fatal errors without requiring developer time, which also improves the handling of the so-called “white screen of death,” along with means to enter recovery mode and pause error-causing plugins or themes.

The new WordPress release requires PHP 5.6.20 or newer and can automatically determine whether the running PHP version is compatible with installed plugins and will prevent activation of plugins that requires a higher version of PHP. 

WordPress 5.2 also adds a layer of defense against compromised update infrastructures, with offline digital signatures, a new feature that allows sites to check updates for valid signatures and verify their authenticity. 

“For the first release, WordPress will (by default) soft-fail if the signature is not valid. In future releases, the default will be configured to a hard failure. The reason for this unsafe default is to ensure updates aren't blocked if there’s a bug in the update code,” Paragon Initiative Enterprises’ Scott Arciszewski explains.

With one third of all websites out there running WordPress, the new security features mark a turning point in the CMS’ evolution. 

Before WordPress 5.2, an attacker only needed to hack the update server and trick the update mechanism into running arbitrary code to infect every WordPress site out there. Following the update to WordPress 5.2, the attacker also needs to steal the signing key from the WordPress core development team, Arciszewski says. 

Another change in WordPress 5.2 is the inclusion in the CMS of sodium_compat, which functions as a polyfill for installations that lack support for Libsodium, a software library for encryption-related operations. On WordPress installations running PHP versions older than 7.2, the update signature verification is provided by sodium_compat

At the moment, only core WordPress updates are covered by the offline digital signatures, with themes and plugins still not cryptographically signed. A system that allows vendors to sign their own releases will arrive, making WordPress’s auto-update a secure process, Arciszewski says. 

The system is called Gossamer and is expected to arrive in WordPress 5.3 or 5.4, depending on how testing with the current release goes.

“If WordPress’s goal is to democratize publishing, then Gossamer's goal is to democratize code-signing,” Arciszewski concludes. 

Related: WordPress 5.1.1 Patches Remote Code Execution Vulnerability

Related: WordPress to Warn on Outdated PHP Versions

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