Magento 1.x Threat Vectors and Remediation Tactics

Magento is the quintessential target for credit card theft. That might seem obvious, but the reasons why are actually complicated and multifactorial, so I’ll spare the details for a different post. For the purpose of this post, just understand that Magento is an especially targeted platform for credit card fraud.


Data breaches can be very costly, especially for PCI-compliant merchants rated between levels 1-3. In an era marked by newsreel data breaches and public outcry over privacy concerns, it is, now more than ever, the compulsory duty of online merchants to make the investment in an intelligent, reliable, and dedicated Magento hosting provider. Merchants that try to take shortcuts and save a few extra short-term dollars always end up regretting that decision down the road. Don’t pay for free lessons.


There are several common threat vectors that have been used over the years to exploit Magento. For many of these attack types, the only way to mitigate the problem is to patch the application. However, there exists a subset of all exploits that rely on one or more weak aspects of the environment in order for the vulnerability to be exploitable.

By hardening the environment around Magento, you can effectively eliminate certain attack types, sacrificing little or nothing as a consequence. Such an approach is especially useful for high-risk, high-volume storefronts that prioritize availability, reliability, and security.


I’m going to walk through a few popular attack types, and show how simple countermeasures can potentially save your Magento storefront from falling prey to the malevolent neckbeards.

Admin brute-force attacks

A brute force attack is a trial-and-error method used to obtain information, such as a user password or personal identification number (PIN).

Threat: Successful brute-force attacks give an unauthorized individual administrative access, which can include access to sensitive information like payment gateway credentials, customer and order information, ERP system credentials, and much, much more.

This particular attack is common under the following conditions:

  • Default/weak front name for administrative panel
  • Default administrator username
  • Weak password requirements
  • Lack of access and activity monitoring

Mitigation: Effectively managing brute-force attacks is probably the easiest type of attack to mitigate. As an example, by using the following tools (or any of their variants), you can develop a more transparent monitoring system that will put you in a better position to handle brute-force attacks at both the network and application level.

Techniques and tools I use include:

XSS attacks

Cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks are a type of injection, in which malicious scripts are injected into otherwise benign and trusted websites.

There are two types of XSS attacks:

  • Persistent XSS attacks
  • Reflected XSS attacks

To keep things simple, we’ll focus on persistent XSS attacks.

Threat: Due to an XSS vulnerability in Magento, an attacker injected an HTML <script> tag into a database table that loads a malicious JavaScript file from a remote server when a user visits the website.

Mitigation: The best mitigation strategy for these types of attacks is to use CSP and whitelist what origins JS files can be loaded from. It will prevent the browser from loading the JS file, protecting the user and giving you time to apply the appropriate patch(es), and clean the database table.

Input Validation

Input validation, also known as data validation, is the proper testing of any input supplied by a user or application. Input validation prevents improperly formed data from entering an information system.

Threat: Due to an unsanitized input field, an attacker was able to execute arbitrary PHP code on the server, modifying Magento core to send all credit card transactions to a remote server.

Mitigation: This type of attack is moderately defensible. While execution of malicious PHP code can result in sensitive information being leaked, this vector can be minimized greatly with a strong understanding of Unix-based filesystem permissions and a dash of creativity.

Warning: This is one specific area where I fervently disagree with the Magento Inc. recommended approach, so take it at face value. It’s battle-tested and has saved my rear many times.

Harden File Permissions

Magento only requires write access to a small subset of directories, such as var and media. Since the webserver runs as an unprivileged user like apache, nginx, or www-data, any malicious code executed as the result of an input validation exploit would also be ran as that user. Likewise, setting the owner and group of all files and directories to a privileged user, with the exception of var and media, would make those files and directories unwritable by the webserver user.


In addition to hardening permissions, another possible tactic is e2fsprogs, which allows use of extended filesystem attributes on files and directories. This is particularly useful because e2fsprogs utilities require elevated privileges by the invoking user, and the webserver user is unprivileged.

Train of thought

The main reason why I’m so adamantly against the Magento Inc. approach is because it gives the webserver user write access to core files, something it shouldn’t have. The webserver user only needs read access to core files, so when you give it write access, you’re opening yourself up to issues that are otherwise preventable.

Magento Security Best Practices

In addition to what I’ve outline above, Magento provides a nicely detailed guide on security best practices, which you can find here.


  1. The most common counterargument I hear to enforcing stronger passwords is that they’re impossible to remember, which causes employee frustation. My recommendation is this: encourage them to use a password manager. As an example, Chrome has an excellent password manager built into it, and it’s extremely easy to use. The same goes for Firefox and any other major browser.