ModSecurity can cause problems with phpBB

If you are noticing weird errors on your phpBB forum which otherwise has been running well for years, ModSecurity may be causing them. I’ve been noticing a lot of issues with phpBB forums lately that have ModSecurity as the root cause.

What is ModSecurity?

It’s a web application firewall, wholly open source. As its name implies, it’s job is to tighten up the security of a web server. Web servers are prominent targets for hackers, of course. ModSecurity was originally written as a module for the Apache web server. It has lots of functions of course but its main job is to prevent hackers from damaging web servers and the websites that reside on them. Started in 2002 for Apache, it now serves all principal web servers on the web, including NGINX and IIS.

How does ModSecurity cause problems with phpBB?

It appears that ModSecurity and phpBB don’t get along very well. These problems may be occurring because the web host added it or turned it on for you and didn’t tell you. ModSecurity can generate various application errors causing the behavior of phpBB to change. In one recent example, when a client tried to click on the Administration Control Panel link, he was redirected to his website homepage instead. Disabling ModSecurity solved his problem.

Here are some other symptoms caused by ModSecurity intercepting and redirecting web traffic that my clients experienced recently:

  • In phpBB 3.2, the Viglink and share forum statistics screen come up in the Administration Control Panel by default after you update to that version. There are checkboxes that allow you to uncheck these. In this case unchecking these and submitting the form generated an unfriendly error message: “Unused” and reported an internal error. This made it impossible to get to the General tab and do things like purge the cache.
  • A forum would not come up at all. Only a white screen appeared. Disabling ModSecurity solved the problem. Note: other issues can cause this, including malware or syntax errors introduced into your forum’s phpBB code.
  • In phpBB’s /cache/production folder, files are created by phpBB with an “autoload_” prefix. These were getting deleted outside of phpBB, triggering PHP warnings. Turning off ModSecurity caused the problem to go away (after purging the cache).

How do I know if I am using ModSecurity?

Administration Control Panel > PHP Information. If your web server is Apache, search for “apache2handler” and look at the loaded modules. Scan for “mod_security” or “mod_security2”. If it’s there, it’s enabled. If you can view your web server error log, scan it for “mod_security”. If you find it, it’s enabled. You can also ask your web host if they have it enabled for your site.

Is it safe to disable ModSecurity?

Perhaps not but you may not be able to have anyone access your forum unless you disable it. Most likely ModSecurity’s rules are not optimally written to accommodate phpBB forums.

Can I disable ModSecurity just inside my forum and leave it enabled on the rest of my website?

Perhaps. Try adding this to the top or bottom your forum’s .htaccess file. If the problem goes away, you are done! (The IIS web server does not use the .htaccess file.)

<IfModule mod_security.c>
  SecFilterEngine Off
  SecFilterScanPOST Off

How do I turn off ModSecurity for my domain?

Look in your web host control panel. If there is a security section, there may be a feature there to enable or disable ModSecurity. Disable it if you can find it. You may have to ask your web host.

If you administer a phpBB board, you should find my book Mastering phpBB Administration invaluable. Learn lots of tips, tricks and secrets I learned from serving over 400 clients. Paper and Kindle versions available.

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