Writing Secure PHP

Error Messages

Errors are a very useful tool for both programmer and hacker. A developer needs them in order to fix bugs. A hacker can use them to find out all sorts of information about a site, from the directory structure of the server to database login information.

If possible, it is best to turn off all error reporting in a live application. PHP can be told to do this through .htaccess or php.ini, by setting "error_reporting" to "0". If you have a development environment, you can set a different error reporting level for that.


Let us imagine for a second that your site has attracted the attention of a Bad Person. This Bad Person wants to break in to your administration area, and change all of your product descriptions to "This Product Sucks". I would hazard a guess that their first step will be to go to http://www.yoursite.com/admin/ – just in case it exists. Placing your sensitive files and folders somewhere predictable like that makes life for potential hackers that little bit easier.

With this in mind, make sure you name your sensitive files and folders so that they are tough to guess. Placing your admin area at http://www.yoursite.com/jsfh8sfsifuhsi8392/ might make it harder to just type in quickly, but it adds an extra layer of security to your site. Pick something memorable by all means if you need an address you can remember quickly, but don't pick "admin" or "administration" (or your username or password). Pick something unusual.

The same applies to usernames and passwords. If you have an admin area, do not use "admin" as the username and "password" as the password. Pick something unusual, ideally with both letters and numbers (some hackers use something called a "dictionary attack", trying every word in a dictionary as a password until they find a word that works – adding a couple of digits to the end of a password renders this type of attack useless). It is also wise to change your password fairly regularly (every month or two).

Finally, make sure that your error messages give nothing away. If your admin area gives an error message saying "Unknown Username" when a bad username is entered and "Wrong Password" when the wrong password is entered, a malicious user will know when they've managed to guess a valid username. Using a generic "Login Error" error message for both of the above means that a malicious user will have no idea if it is the username or password he has entered that is wrong.


Thanx to a series of articles in addedbytes.com.

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