Quick security tips for Drupal themers

  • Drupal

As you probably know, the Drupal community is strongly committed to security. The Drupal security team is one of the largest of any open source project, and security vulnerabilities are treated swiftly and with great seriousness. In fact, the vast majority of security flaws are usually difficult to exploit, as it requires users to have some level of administration clearance, which on most sites is only given to trusted users. And, would a malevolent user get such an admin account, exploiting the said flaw would probably be the least of her concerns, as she would have access to much more valuable data anyway. Nonetheless, Drupal's security team deals with these vulnerabilities just as they would with more serious flaws, and modules or themes that fail to quickly correct them are blocked. But I digress.

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The reason I'm telling you all this is that Drupal sites do get hacked, but as many a surprised Drupal themer learns, it is more often than not the theme that is at fault.

This is likely to change when Drupal 8 comes out, but as Drupal 7 is here for some years still, let me explain why the theme can be a serious risk and how you can easily avoid it.

Clean Escape

The single most made mistake by themers is not escaping variables that are printed.

I don't blame them! This is clearly a problem in educating both module maintainers and themers. The main reason behind this confusion is that it is not always clear what is safe to output and what is not. This is a big problem, as not escaping variables can be a security risk, whereas double escaping variables can have undesired results and mess up the output.

Module maintainers are always encouraged to clearly indicate which variables are already escaped, and which ones are not. For instance, a module that adds a new property on a node may automatically make this property available in the node template. However, if this property is not escaped, and a themer unknowingly prints it out "raw", we expose our site to exploits. Take this example:

A classified ads site lets users create an account and post ads. We use a module that creates a custom node type for this. Imagine it has a body, title, etc. Most of these fields are Drupal fields; hence, Drupal handles them and makes certain they are escaped at render time and safe for printing.

However, the module adds one custom field for a bio section. This field is not handled by Drupal, and unfortunately not escaped at render time. A malevolent user, Jeannine, knows this flaw, and confirms that on the site, the themer did not escape the bio field.

If she were to put this deceptively simple code in there, she would be able to take over any user account (User-1 in our example, which is the worst that could happen) as soon as any admin (other than User-1, as changing your own password requires you to give the old password first) visits her ad — which is highly likely when ads are validated by hand:

<script type="text/javascript">
(function($) {
  $.get('/user/1/edit', function(data, status) {
    if (status == 'success') {              
      var payload = {
        form_id: 'user_profile_form',
        form_token: data.match(/name="form_token" value="([a-z0-9]*)"/i)[1],
        form_build_id: data.match(/name="form_build_id" value="([\-a-z0-9]*)"/i)[1],
        'pass[pass1]': 'pwned',
        'pass[pass2]': 'pwned'
      $.post('/user/1/edit', payload);

This is why you should always triple-check your templates and make sure that everything that is being printed out is safe.


Be paranoid. Never expect a variable to be safe unless it specifically says so (like the safe_value key on Drupal fields — you were printing these ones and not the value keys, right?) It is better to double-escape than not escaping at all. It will look ugly, but you will thank yourself later.

If a variable uses no HTML markup, pass it through check_plain, like so:

<?php print check_plain($value); ?>

If it does contain markup, it is going to be trickier. This boils down to 2 use-cases:

  1. We're dealing with a textfield which has no input format attached to it
  2. We're dealing with a textfield (like the Body field) for which the user can select a input format (like filtered HTML or full HTML)

In the first case, use filter_xss. filter_xss is simple to use, and filters almost any HTML out. It leaves some default tags, which you can change if you wish (pass an array of allowed tags as a second parameter):

<?php print filter_xss($value); ?>

<?php print filter_xss($value, array(
)); // Specify allowed tags ?>

In the second case, the variable will contain some information on the format being used (like filtered HTML or full HTML). You can then use check_markup. In many cases, the variable you need to print will have a value key and a format key. If you do not know the format, just leave it out; this will fallback to the site's default:

<?php print check_markup($value['value'], $value['format']); ?>

<?php print check_markup($value); // Using site defaults ?>

Further reading

I suggest reading Drupal's official documentation on writing secure code.

There's also a section on handling user input that's interesting.

Drupal 8 And Twig

In Drupal 8, Drupal's in-house template engine PHPTemplate will be dropped in favor of Twig.

Twig is a beautifully elegant, fast and flexible template engine. But one of the biggest advantages it has over the old PHPTemplate is security.

PHPTemplate was pretty fast compared to many other tools in the industry, and it was fairly easy to use, even for nontechnical users. However, its biggest flaw was that it executed PHP code directly. Twig, on the other hand, allows no code execution. Furthermore, Twig can be configured (and will be in Drupal 8) to always escape variables that are being printed out. So, the risk of a theme outputting malevolent code is greatly reduced.

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