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Using Register Globals

Warning

This feature has been DEPRECATED and REMOVED as of PHP 6.0.0. Relying on this feature is highly discouraged.

Perhaps the most controversial change in PHP is when the default value for the PHP directive register_globals went from ON to OFF in PHP » 4.2.0. Reliance on this directive was quite common and many people didn't even know it existed and assumed it's just how PHP works. This page will explain how one can write insecure code with this directive but keep in mind that the directive itself isn't insecure but rather it's the misuse of it.

When on, register_globals will inject your scripts with all sorts of variables, like request variables from HTML forms. This coupled with the fact that PHP doesn't require variable initialization means writing insecure code is that much easier. It was a difficult decision, but the PHP community decided to disable this directive by default. When on, people use variables yet really don't know for sure where they come from and can only assume. Internal variables that are defined in the script itself get mixed up with request data sent by users and disabling register_globals changes this. Let's demonstrate with an example misuse of register_globals:

Example #1 Example misuse with register_globals = on

<?php
// define $authorized = true only if user is authenticated
if (authenticated_user()) {
    
$authorized true;
}

// Because we didn't first initialize $authorized as false, this might be
// defined through register_globals, like from GET auth.php?authorized=1
// So, anyone can be seen as authenticated!
if ($authorized) {
    include 
"/highly/sensitive/data.php";
}
?>

When register_globals = on, our logic above may be compromised. When off, $authorized can't be set via request so it'll be fine, although it really is generally a good programming practice to initialize variables first. For example, in our example above we might have first done $authorized = false. Doing this first means our above code would work with register_globals on or off as users by default would be unauthorized.

Another example is that of sessions. When register_globals = on, we could also use $username in our example below but again you must realize that $username could also come from other means, such as GET (through the URL).

Example #2 Example use of sessions with register_globals on or off

<?php
// We wouldn't know where $username came from but do know $_SESSION is
// for session data
if (isset($_SESSION['username'])) {

    echo 
"Hello <b>{$_SESSION['username']}</b>";

} else {

    echo 
"Hello <b>Guest</b><br />";
    echo 
"Would you like to login?";

}
?>

It's even possible to take preventative measures to warn when forging is being attempted. If you know ahead of time exactly where a variable should be coming from, you can check to see if the submitted data is coming from an inappropriate kind of submission. While it doesn't guarantee that data has not been forged, it does require an attacker to guess the right kind of forging. If you don't care where the request data comes from, you can use $_REQUEST as it contains a mix of GET, POST and COOKIE data. See also the manual section on using variables from external sources.

Example #3 Detecting simple variable poisoning

<?php
if (isset($_COOKIE['MAGIC_COOKIE'])) {

    
// MAGIC_COOKIE comes from a cookie.
    // Be sure to validate the cookie data!

} elseif (isset($_GET['MAGIC_COOKIE']) || isset($_POST['MAGIC_COOKIE'])) {

   
mail("[email protected]""Possible breakin attempt"$_SERVER['REMOTE_ADDR']);
   echo 
"Security violation, admin has been alerted.";
   exit;

} else {

   
// MAGIC_COOKIE isn't set through this REQUEST

}
?>

Of course, simply turning off register_globals does not mean your code is secure. For every piece of data that is submitted, it should also be checked in other ways. Always validate your user data and initialize your variables! To check for uninitialized variables you may turn up error_reporting() to show E_NOTICE level errors.

For information about emulating register_globals being On or Off, see this FAQ.

Note: Superglobals: availability note
Superglobal arrays such as $_GET, $_POST, and $_SERVER, etc. are available as of PHP 4.1.0. For more information, read the manual section on superglobals



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