Securing Nginx and PHP

This write up is intended for single-user systems where you are the only user expected to log in via shell/terminal/sftp (or at least people you actually trust). This collection of tips does not cover situations where you may have multiple users home folders or a shared hosting situation utilizing nginx and php-fpm. Generally speaking if you have to read this post for security tips you probably should not be allowing access to any other user but yourself in the first place.

If you do not care to read this whole write up, just remember one thing: `777` is not a magical quick-fix; it’s an open invitation to having your system compromised. (Script-Kiddies… can you say jackpot?)


Generally speaking your server, which will most likely be a VPS running some fashion of linux will already have a web service user and group. This will sometimes be www, www-data, http, apache, (or even nginx if a package manager installed it for you). You can run the following command to get a list of users that are on your system.

cat /etc/passwd

Both Nginx and PHP-FPM should run as a web service, on a Debian squeeze this would be www-data:www-data, or on FreeBSD www:www.

If your server was set up with root being the main user you should create an unprivileged user for handling your web files. This will also make it easier to handle permissions when uploading your web files via SFTP. For example the following command on a debian system would create a user named kbeezie which has www-data as the primary group.

useradd -g 33 -m kbeezie

Group ID #33 is the id for www-data on Debian Squeeze (you can verify with id www-data). You may have to su into the new user and change the password (or usermod to change). This will also create a home folder in /home/kbeezie/ by default. You can log in via SFTP to this user and create a www folder if you wish. You’ll notice that the files will be owned by kbeezie:www-data, which will allow Nginx and PHP to read from, but also gives you group-level control over how the web services may treat those files.

This is ideal since you’re not giving nginx or php-fpm too much control over the user’s files and they can be controlled with the group flag. You could also create the user with it’s own group such as kbeezie:kbeezie and just change the group of the web files to www-data where appropriate.

SSH Options

It is usually advisable to disable Root access via /etc/ssh/sshd_config with the following line:

PermitRootLogin no

However make sure you can log in with your new unprivileged user via SSH, and also make sure that you can `su` into root permission. On a FreeBSD system only a user belonging to the wheel group can su into root, and only a user listed in the sudoers file can use the sudo command. However on Debian/etc the user could have www-data as it’s own group and still be able to su/sudo as long as the root password is valid. Your password should be at least 12 characters long and contain digits, symbols and at least one capital letter. Do not use the same password for root and your web user.

Once you’ve verified that you’re able to obtain root status with the new user you can safely disable root log in via sshd_config and restart the ssh deaemon.

You should also change your default SSH port, which is 22. While a port scanner could probably find the new SSH port it is usually best practice not to use the default port for any type of secure access. Like before make sure you can log into the new port (you can configure sshd_config to listen to both 22 and another port to test this out).

SSH – PubKey Authentication

If you are on OSX or another unix/linux operating system, like I am, setting up pub key authentication is fairly painless. Logged in as your web user on the server you can run the following command:


The above by default will ask for a passphrase for your private key as well as a destination to save both the id_rsa and files (which will normally be ~/.ssh/). You can then copy your own user’s public key to an authorized_key file with the following command.

cp ~/.ssh/ ~/.ssh/authorized_keys

Then on your own computer you can run the ssh-keygen command as well, copy your own computer’s public key from the file and add it as another line to your server’s authorized_keys file.

If you have `PubkeyAuthentication yes` listed in your sshd_config file with the authorized key path being that of .ssh in your home folder the server should allow you to log in without prompting you for a password. Just remember that if you chose not to use a passphrase for your private key then it is possible for anyone who obtains your id_rsa* files to log into your server without being prompted for a password.

You can even turn off password authentication completely and rely solely on public key authentication by setting `PasswordAuthentication no` in your sshd_config file. However keep in mind, unless you have another means of getting into your server you might get locked out if you lose your public/private key or access to the machine you use to log in (also not every SFTP or Terminal application supports pub key authentication).

I actually have public key authentication set up with my iPad using iSSH for quick server access on the go (and you do not need a jailbroken iPad for this).

On the next page are some Nginx and PHP specific configurations to hardening your installation.

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