How to Set Up ModSecurity with Apache on Debian/Ubuntu

This tutorial is going to show you how to install and use ModSecurity with Apache on Debian/Ubuntu servers. ModSecurity is the most well-known open-source web application firewall (WAF), providing comprehensive protection for your web applications (like WordPress, Nextcloud, Ghost etc) against a wide range of Layer 7 (HTTP) attacks, such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting, and local file inclusion.

Web applications are inherently insecure. If you are a WordPress admin, you probably hear news of hackers exploiting vulnerabilities in WordPress plugins and themes every once in a while. It’s essential that you deploy a WAF on your web server, especially when you have old applications that don’t receive updates. ModSecurity is originally created by Ivan Ristić in 2002, currently maintained by Trustwave SpiderLabs. It’s the world’s most widely deployed WAF, used by over a million websites. cPanel, the most widely used hosting control panel, includes ModSecurity as its WAF.

You may have heard other host-based firewalls like iptables, UFW, and Firewalld, etc. The difference is that they work on layer 3 and 4 of the OSI model and take actions based on IP address and port number. ModSecurity, or web application firewalls in general, is specialized to focus on HTTP traffic (layer 7 of the OSI model) and takes action based on the content of HTTP request and response.

ModSecurity 3

ModSecurity was originally designed for Apache web server. It could work with Nginx before version 3.0 but suffered from poor performance. ModSecurity 3.0 (aka libmodsecurity) was released in 2017. It’s a milestone release, particularly for Nginx users, as it’s the first version to work natively with Nginx. The caveat of ModSecurity 3 is that it doesn’t yet have all the features as in the previous version (2.9), though each new release will add some of the missing features. Nginx users should use ModSecurity 3. However, if you use Apache, it’s recommended to continue using the 2.9 branch for the time being.

Step 1: Install ModSecurity with Apache on Debian/Ubuntu

The ModSecurity module for Apache is included in the default Debian/Ubuntu repository. To install it, run

sudo apt install libapache2-mod-security2

Then enable this module.

sudo a2enmod security2

Restart Apache for the change to take effect.

sudo systemctl restart apache2

Step 2: Configure ModSecurity

In the /etc/apache2/mods-enabled/security2.conf configuration file, you can find the following line.

IncludeOptional /etc/modsecurity/*.conf

sudo a2enmod security2

This means Apache will include all the *.conf files in /etc/modsecurity/ directory. We need to rename the modsecurity.conf-recommended file to make it work.

sudo mv /etc/modsecurity/modsecurity.conf-recommended /etc/modsecurity/modsecurity.conf

Then edit this file with a command-line text editor like Nano.

sudo nano /etc/modsecurity/modsecurity.conf

Find the following line.

SecRuleEngine DetectionOnly

This config tells ModSecurity to log HTTP transactions, but takes no action when an attack is detected. Change it to the following, so ModSecurity will detect and block web attacks.

SecRuleEngine On

Then find the following line (line 186), which tells ModSecurity what information should be included in the audit log.

SecAuditLogParts ABDEFHIJZ

However, the default setting is wrong. You will know why later when I explain how to understand ModSecurity logs. The setting should be changed to the following.

SecAuditLogParts ABCEFHJKZ

Save and close the file. Then restart Apache for the change to take effect. (Reloding the web server isn’t enough.)

sudo systemctl restart apache2

Step 3: Install the OWASP Core Rule Set (CRS)

To make ModSecurity protect your web applications, you need to define rules to detect malicious actors and block them. For beginners, it’s a good idea to install existing rule sets, so you can get started quickly and then learn the nitty-gritty down the road. There are several free rule sets for ModSecurity. The OWASP Core Rule Set (CRS) is the standard rule set used with ModSecurity.

  • It’s free, community-maintained and the most widely used rule set that provides a sold default configuration for ModSecurity.
  • It contains rules to help stop common attack vectors, including SQL injection (SQLi), cross-site scripting (XSS), and many others.
  • It can integrate with Project Honeypot.
  • It also contains rules to detect bots and scanners.
  • It has been tuned through wide exposure to have very few false positives.

When installing ModSecurity from the default Debian/Ubuntu repository, the modsecurity-crs package is also installed as a dependency. This package contains the OWASP core rule set version 3.x. However, it can become out of date. If you care about security, you should use the latest version of core rule set.

Download the latest OWASP CRS from GitHub.

wget https://github.com/coreruleset/coreruleset/archive/v3.3.0.tar.gz

Extract the file.

tar xvf v3.3.0.tar.gz

Create a directory to store CRS files.

sudo mkdir /etc/apache2/modsecurity-crs/

Move the extracted directory to /etc/apache2/modsecurity-crs/.

sudo mv coreruleset-3.3.0/ /etc/apache2/modsecurity-crs/

Go to that directory.

cd /etc/apache2/modsecurity-crs/coreruleset-3.3.0/

Rename the crs-setup.conf.example file.

sudo mv crs-setup.conf.example crs-setup.conf

Edit the /etc/apache2/mods-enabled/security2.conf file.

sudo nano /etc/apache2/mods-enabled/security2.conf

Find the following line, which loads the default CRS files.

IncludeOptional /usr/share/modsecurity-crs/*.load

Change it to the following, so the latest OWASP CRS will be used.

IncludeOptional /etc/apache2/modsecurity-crs/coreruleset-3.3.0/crs-setup.conf
IncludeOptional /etc/apache2/modsecurity-crs/coreruleset-3.3.0/rules/*.conf

apache Install the OWASP Core Rule Set CRS debian ubuntu

Save and close the file. Then test Apache configuration.

sudo apache2ctl -t

If the syntax is OK, then reload Apache.

sudo systemctl reload apache2

Step 4: Learn How OWASP CRS Works

Let’s take a look at the CRS config file, which provides you with good documentation on how CRS works.

sudo nano /etc/apache2/modsecurity-crs/coreruleset-3.3.0/crs-setup.conf

You can see that OWASP CRS can run in two modes:

  • self-contained mode. This is the traditional mode used in CRS v2.x. If an HTTP request matches a rule, ModSecurity will block the HTTP request immediately and stop evaluating remaining rules.
  • anomaly scoring mode. This is the default mode used in CRS v3.x. ModSecurity will check an HTTP request against all rules, and add a score to each matching rule. If a threshold is reached, then the HTTP request is considered an attack and will be blocked. The default score for inbound requests is 5 and for outbound response is 4.

modsecurity Anomaly Scoring debian ubuntu

When running in anomaly scoring mode, there are 4 paranoia levels.

  • Paranoia level 1 (default)
  • Paranoia level 2
  • Paranoia level 3
  • Paranoia level 4

With each paranoia level increase, the CRS enables additional rules giving you a higher level of security. However, higher paranoia levels also increase the possibility of blocking some legitimate traffic due to false alarms.

modsecurity Paranoia Level Initialization debian ubuntu

These are the two basic concepts you need to understand before using the CRS. Now we can close the file. The individual CRS rules are stored in /etc/apache2/modsecurity-crs/coreruleset-3.3.0/rules/ directory. Each matching rule will increase the anomaly score.

Step 5: Testing

To check if ModSecurity is working, you can launch a simple SQL injection attack on your own website. (Please note that it’s illegal to do security testing on other people’s websites without authorization.) Enter the following URL in your web browser.

https://yourdomain.com/?id=3 or 'a'='a'

If ModSecurity is working properly, your Apache web server should return a 403 forbidden error message.

modsecurity SQL injection test debian ubuntu

And in the audit log (/var/log/apache2/modsec_audit.log), you can see the following line in section H, which means ModSecurity detected and blocked this SQL injection attack by using OWASP CRS v3.3.0.

Action: Intercepted (phase 2)

modsecurity-apache-Action-Intercepted-phase-2-debian-ubuntu

When ModSecurity runs in DetectionOnly mode, it won’t block this SQL injection attack.

Step 6: Understanding the ModSecurity Logs

It’s important to analyze the ModSecurity logs, so you will know what kind of attacks are directed to your web applications and take better actions to defend against threat actors. There are mainly two kinds of logs in ModSecurity:

  • debug log: disabled by default.
  • audit log: /var/log/apache2/modsec_audit.log

To understand ModSecurity audit logs, you need to know the 5 processing phases in ModSecurity, which are:

  • Phase 1: Inspect request headers
  • Phase 2: Inspect request body
  • Phase 3: Inspect response headers
  • Phase 4: Inspect response body
  • Phase 5: Action (logging/blocking malicious requests)

They are also two types of logging file.

  • Serial: one file for all logs. This is the default.
  • Concurrent: multiple files for logging. This can provide better write performance. If you can notice your web pages slowing down after enabling ModSecurity, you can choose to use the concurrent logging type.

Events in the log are divided into several sections.

  • section A: audit log header
  • section B: request header
  • section C: request body
  • section D: reserved
  • section E: intermediary response body
  • section F: final response headers
  • section G: reserved
  • section H: audit log trailer
  • section I: compact request body alternative, which excludes files
  • section J: information on uploaded files
  • section K: every rule matched by an event, in order of match
  • section Z: final boundary

Step 7: Handling False Positives

ModSecurity is a generic web application firewall and not designed for a specific web application. The OWASP core rule set is also a generic rule set with no particular application in mind, so it’s likely that you will see false positives after enabling ModSecurity and OWASP CRS. If you increase the paranoia level in the CRS, there will be more false positives.

For example, by default, the CRS forbids Unix command injection like entering sudo on a web page, which is rather common on my blog. To eliminate false positives, you need to add rule exclusions to the CRS.

Application-Specific Rule Exclusions

There are some prebuilt, application-specific exclusions shipped with OWASP CRS. Edit the crs-setup.conf file.

sudo nano /etc/apache2/modsecurity-crs/coreruleset-3.3.0/crs-setup.conf

Go to the Application Specific Rule Exclusions section and find the following lines.

#SecAction 
# "id:900130,
#  phase:1,
#  nolog,
#  pass,
#  t:none,
#  setvar:tx.crs_exclusions_cpanel=1,
#  setvar:tx.crs_exclusions_drupal=1,
#  setvar:tx.crs_exclusions_dokuwiki=1,
#  setvar:tx.crs_exclusions_nextcloud=1,
#  setvar:tx.crs_exclusions_wordpress=1,
#  setvar:tx.crs_exclusions_xenforo=1"

For instance, If I want to enable WordPress exclusions, the above lines should be changed to the following. Please be careful about the syntax.

SecAction 
  "id:900130,
   phase:1,
   nolog,
   pass,
   t:none,
   setvar:tx.crs_exclusions_wordpress=1"
#  setvar:tx.crs_exclusions_cpanel=1,
#  setvar:tx.crs_exclusions_drupal=1,
#  setvar:tx.crs_exclusions_dokuwiki=1,
#  setvar:tx.crs_exclusions_nextcloud=1,
#  setvar:tx.crs_exclusions_xenforo=1"

Save and close the file. Then test Apache configurations.

sudo apache2ctl -t

If the test is successful, reload Apache for the change to take effect.

sudo systemctl reload apache2

Note that if you have multiple applications such as (WordPress, Nextcloud, Drupal, etc) installed on the same server, then the above rule exclusions will be applied to all applications. To minimize the security risks, you should enable a rule exclusion for one application only. To do that, go to the /etc/apache2/modsecurity-crs/coreruleset-3.3.0/rules/ directory.

cd /etc/apache2/modsecurity-crs/coreruleset-3.3.0/rules/

Rename the REQUEST-900-EXCLUSION-RULES-BEFORE-CRS file.

sudo mv REQUEST-900-EXCLUSION-RULES-BEFORE-CRS.conf.example REQUEST-900-EXCLUSION-RULES-BEFORE-CRS.conf

Then edit this file.

sudo nano REQUEST-900-EXCLUSION-RULES-BEFORE-CRS.conf

Add the following line at the bottom of this file. If your WordPress is using the blog.yourdomain.com sub-domain and the request header send from visitor’s browser contains this sub-domain, then ModSecurity will apply the rule exclusions for WordPress.

SecRule REQUEST_HEADERS:Host "@streq blog.yourdomain.com" "id:1000,phase:1,setvar:tx.crs_exclusions_wordpress=1"

If you have installed Nextcloud on the same server, then you can also add the following line in this file, so if a visitor is accessing your Nextcloud sub-domain, ModSecurity will apply the Nextcloud rule exclusions.

SecRule REQUEST_HEADERS:Host "@streq nextcloud.yourdomain.com" "id:1001,phase:1,setvar:tx.crs_exclusions_nextcloud=1"

Save and close this file. Then test Apache configurations.

sudo apache2ctl -t

If the test is successful, reload Apache for the change to take effect.

sudo systemctl reload apache2

Custom Rule Exclusions

Enabling the prebuilt application-specific rule exclusions might not eliminate all false positives. If so, you need to examine the ModSecurity audit log (/var/log/apache2/modsec_audit.log), check which rule caused the false positive and add your custom rule exclusions in the REQUEST-900-EXCLUSION-RULES-BEFORE-CRS.conf file.

Section H in the audit log tells you which rule is matched. For example, If I try to use the <code>...</code> HTML in the comment form, ModSecurity blocks my comment. The following log tells me that the HTTP request matched a rule in REQUEST-941-APPLICATION-ATTACK-XSS.conf (line 527). The rule ID is 941310. The request URI is /wp-comments-post.php.

modsecurity Custom Rule Exclusions

It’s detected as malformed encoding XSS filter attack. However, I want users to be able to use the <code>...</code> and <pre>...</pre> HTML tag in the comment form, so I created a rule exclusion. Add the following line at the bottom of the REQUEST-900-EXCLUSION-RULES-BEFORE-CRS.conf file.

SecRule REQUEST_URI "@streq /wp-comments-post.php" "id:1002,phase:1,ctl:ruleRemoveById=941310"

This line tells ModSecurity that if the request URI is /wp-comments-post.php, then don’t apply rule ID 941310. Save and close the file. Then test Apache configurations.

sudo apache2ctl -t

If the test is successful, reload Apache for the change to take effect.

sudo systemctl reload apache2

Note: It’s not recommended to disable too many rules of level 1 in the OWASP CRS, as it will make your website be hacked much more easily. Only disable rules if you know what you are doing.

(Optional) Integrate ModSecurity with Project Honeypot

Project Honeypot maintains a list of known malicious IP addresses, available free to the public. ModSecurity can integrates with Project Honeypot and block IP addresses on the Project Honeypot list.

Note that using Project Honeypot will make your website slower for new visitors, because your web server will need to send a query to Project Honeypot before it can send a response to the new visitor. However, once the IP reputation data is cached on your web server, the performance impact will be very minimal.

To use Project Honeypot, first create a free account on its website. Then go to your account dashboard and click the get one link to request an access key for the HTTP blacklist.

Project Honeypot HTTP blacklist API key

Next, edit the crs-setup.conf file.

sudo nano /etc/apache2/modsecurity-crs/coreruleset-3.3.0/crs-setup.conf

Find the following lines.

#SecHttpBlKey XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
#SecAction "id:900500,
#  phase:1,
#  nolog,
#  pass,
#  t:none,
#  setvar:tx.block_search_ip=1,
#  setvar:tx.block_suspicious_ip=1,
#  setvar:tx.block_harvester_ip=1,
#  setvar:tx.block_spammer_ip=1"

Remove the beginning # characters to uncomment them, and add your HTTPBL API key obtained from Project Honeypot.

Integrate ModSecurity with Project Honeypot

Note that block_search_ip should be set to 0 (disabled), as we don’t want to block search engine crawlers. Save and close the file. Then reload Apache.

sudo systemctl reload apache2

Now ModSecurity will query Project Honeypot on all HTTP requests. To test if this would work, edit the crs-setup.conf file.

sudo nano /etc/apache2/modsecurity-crs/coreruleset-3.3.0/crs-setup.conf

In Nano text editor, you can quickly jump to the end of the file by pressing Ctrl+W, then Ctrl+V. Add the following line at the end of this file. This allows us to pass an IP address in an URL. (Once the test is successful, you can remove this line from the file.)

SecRule ARGS:IP "@rbl dnsbl.httpbl.org" "phase:1,id:171,t:none,deny,nolog,auditlog,msg:'RBL Match for SPAM Source'

Save and close the file. Test Apache configurations.

sudo apache2ctl -t

Then reload Apache.

sudo systemctl reload apache2

Go to Project Honeypot website and find a malicious IP address, for example, 134.119.218.243. Run the following command to test the HTTP blacklist.

curl -i -s -k -X $'GET' 'https://yourdomain.com/?IP=134.119.218.243'

Your Apache web server should return a 403 forbidden response because the IP address is on Project Honeypot.

Next Step

I hope this tutorial helped you set up ModSecurity web application firewall with Apache on Debian/Ubuntu. You may also want to check out other security tutorials.

  • How to Use UFW Firewall on Debian, Ubuntu, Linux Mint
  • Set Up Automatic Security Update (Unattended Upgrade) on Ubuntu
  • Canonical Livepatch Service: Patch Linux Kernel on Ubuntu without Reboot
  • 2 Simple Steps to Set up Passwordless SSH Login on Ubuntu
  • 5 Effective Tips to Harden SSH Server on Ubuntu

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