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Headless CMS security 101: How to safeguard your website

What headless CMS security means and how you can safeguard your website from threats.
Jing Li

Jing Li

Nov 08, 2023
Headless CMS security 101: How to safeguard your website

Modern enterprises continue to invest large sums of money to maintain the security of their websites and technology stacks. According to Gartner, spending on security and risk management is expected to reach $215 billion in 2024, a 14.3% increase from 2023.

As the central piece of the digital experience stack, having the right CMS plays a vital role in whether or not businesses can build a secure tech stack. In this article, we’ll explore what headless CMS security is all about and how you can safeguard your website from threats.

#Introduction to CMS Security

A CMS is a software solution that enables businesses to create, edit, and manage content. A headless CMS, in particular, decouples the backend management from frontend presentation and, therefore, enables businesses to do this across any digital channel.

CMSs are vital for website management as they enable content authors and marketers to orchestrate things in the backend and publish content to the website.

Security is a critical aspect of any CMS. On the one hand, ensuring the CMS is secure and prevents unauthorized personnel from accessing the system and the sensitive data stored inside is essential. On the other hand, it helps ensure the business can count on a robust technology stack and website, thus avoiding downtime and other preventable issues.

#8 reasons why your organization can't afford to be hacked

Maintaining the security of your website is critical to a successful business and helps avoid the detrimental effects of getting hacked. Here are the reasons to prioritize website security:

1. Content protection

CMS security is essential for protecting the content on your website. It prevents unauthorized access from hackers who might modify or deface your website, which could harm your brand. For example, a potential client might visit your website and be greeted with a link that redirects them to another website filled with inappropriate content. If that happens, they likely won’t return.

2. Customer data protection

A secure CMS can help protect sensitive information such as names, addresses, payment details, and other personal information. Keeping this data safe is essential, as a breach can lead to consequences, including identity theft, financial losses, and reputational damage.

3. Intellectual property protection

Companies in highly regulated industries need to be able to count on a CMS that offers robust security measures. If their website is hacked, it could lead to intellectual property being stolen, which might be worth a considerable amount. For instance, when hackers in China stole intellectual property from 30 multinational companies, the estimated losses were in the trillions of dollars.

4. Website performance

Website performance is critical in the user experience and accessibility, essential for Google PageSpeed scores and search engine rankings. If a website or CMS isn’t secure, customers may visit a competitor's website instead.

5. Revenue impact

When a website gets hacked, one of the biggest issues is the impact on revenue. Some of the costs will include those associated with legal penalties, compensation to affected customers, and loss of business due to reputational damage.

6. Cost of downtime

Downtime is the biggest concern if a website suffers a security breach. It can lead to lost sales, reduced productivity, and a huge financial hit. Data indicates that downtime can cost an enterprise company an average of $9000 per minute. However, this can be even steeper depending on the company's size and how much downtime they experience. For instance, an AWS outage in 2017 caused losses of $150 million for S&P 500 companies.

7. Hidden costs of recovering from a breach

Even if a breach gets patched and the company seemingly moves on, several hidden costs remain relevant. Expenses for forensic investigations, legal fees, public relations efforts, and the implementation of enhanced security measures will be the first to appear. However, it also includes intangible costs like damage to reputation and customer trust.

8. Legal and compliance fines

When a website gets hacked and data is lost, companies must also deal with the legal and compliance consequences. With the introduction of regulations such as GDPR, for example, companies must follow specific guidelines. Failure to comply with these, such as in the case of a hacked website, can lead to heavy fines.

#Common website security threats

When trying to protect your website, there are various threats businesses will come across, and CMSs are often the most at risk. According to the 2020 Global Threat Intelligence Report, 20% of all cybersecurity attacks for that year targeted CMSs, particularly platforms such as WordPress and Joomla. Some of the most common types of threats include include:

SQL injection

An SQL injection attack occurs when a hacker introduces malicious SQL (Structured Query Language) code into a website’s input fields. This manipulates the database and provides unauthorized access so that the hacker can modify and delete the data found on the website. Joomla CMSs have been known to be susceptible to this attack, with versions 3.7.1 and 3.9.15 being particularly vulnerable over the years.

Cross-site scripting

Cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks occur when an attacker injects malicious scripts into a web page. These scripts run in the victim’s browser and can steal sensitive information, including cookies and session tokens.

Brute force attacks

Brute force attacks happen when hackers gain access to a system or database by systematically trying all possible combinations of usernames and passwords until the correct one is found. Brute force attacks generally happen when users have weak passwords.

Platforms like WordPress, which can suffer from this weak password problem and infrequent updates to websites and plugins, are highly susceptible to brute-force attacks. For example, for a brief period in April 2013, there were 90,000 attempts per day to hack WordPress sites via brute force attacks.

Distributed denial of service (DDoS)

DDoS attacks occur when a website or online service is flooded with a massive amount of traffic from multiple sources, forcing downtime. Hackers use a network of compromised devices known as a botnet to overwhelm the target server’s capacity to handle requests.

#Traditional CMS vs. headless CMS: Which one is more secure?

When it comes to website security, a key consideration that should be considered is deciding between a traditional CMS and a headless CMS. Many attacks can threaten both types of CMSs. However, traditional CMSs, such as WordPress, are often more susceptible to certain attacks.

A traditional CMS couples the frontend presentation layer and backend content management repository into a single integrated platform. This means that the CMS is responsible for managing both the content and the display of that content. However, this also means that any vulnerabilities in the CMS expose the CMS database and the frontend website due to the increased surface area for potential breaches.

On the other hand, a headless CMS decouples the backend content repository layer from the frontend presentation layer. This separation allows for greater security because the content management layer is isolated and can be protected independently.

Headless architecture reduces the risk of security breaches, as any vulnerabilities in the frontend do not directly impact the backend, and vice versa. Additionally, updates and security patches can be applied more selectively, focusing solely on the backend without affecting the frontend presentation.

#Best Practices to keep your CMS secure

There must be shared responsibility between CMS providers, developers, and website owners in maintaining a secure online presence. This includes following certain guidelines and best practices.

Implement user roles and permissions

A critical best practice is implementing roles and permissions, which ensures that only authorized individuals have access to certain areas and functionalities of the CMS. By assigning custom roles (e.g., admin, editor, contributor, etc.) and associated granular permissions, companies control who can perform actions like publishing content, managing users, or modifying settings.

For example, an editor might have permission to create and edit content but not to change system configurations. Incorporating single sign-on (SSO) can also provide an added layer of security.

Implement content backup and recovery plans

Regularly backing up content and having a well-defined recovery plan are crucial for mitigating the impact of data loss due to accidents. To implement a solid strategy, automated backups should occur daily or at a frequency that aligns with your content update cycle. These backups should be stored in a secure offsite location or separate server if stored on-premises.

Additionally, storing content and data in the cloud can protect against potential on-site disasters. Security admins should periodically verify the integrity of backups to ensure they can be successfully restored, as well as perform recovery tests to know that the backup process is functioning as expected.

Build a robust tech stack

A secure tech stack includes not only the CMS but also the complementary technologies and infrastructure. Leveraging a composable architecture can provide a robust tech stack, particularly if built using MACH architecture. This provides the microservices, APIs, cloud-native, and headless architecture that benefit a modern tech stack. With a cloud-based infrastructure, businesses don’t have to worry about updating their software as the vendor handles those upgrades. Hygraph offers such a cloud-based architecture with regular updates.

On the other hand, platforms such as WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal are typically the most attacked CMSs due to the infrequent updates to plugins and other critical integrations.

Choose a reputable headless CMS

Opting for a reputable headless CMS ensures that you’re working with a platform that prioritizes security, provides regular updates, and has a track record of addressing vulnerabilities promptly.

When deciding between CMSs, consider additional security measures such as the number of GitHub commits and CVE reports to ensure that code is regularly updated and vulnerabilities are handled swiftly. Hygraph has security measures like SOC2 compliance, ISO 27001, and GDPR compliance, highlighting the commitment to keeping customer data safe and secure.

#CMS features that help safeguard your website

When looking for a CMS that helps keep your website secure, certain features should be considered.

Headless architecture

Headless architecture, particularly the presence of APIs, ensures that data can be shared between the different layers of the CMS. However, because the frontend and backend are separated, neither layer is overly susceptible to attack, as an attack on one layer won’t immediately spell danger for the other.


A cloud-native CMS is designed to leverage the capabilities and benefits of cloud infrastructure. This includes scalability, redundancy, and, often, built-in security features provided by cloud service providers. Additionally, updates are handled by the vendor.

Roles & permissions

Roles and permissions allow you to control who can access and perform specific actions within the CMS. This is crucial for limiting privileges to only those who need them, reducing the risk of unauthorized access or changes. Roles and permissions are often accompanied by security measures such as two-factor authentication (2FA), which adds an extra layer of security by requiring users to provide two forms of authentication before gaining access to the system.

We wanted a modular system that's both modern and innovative. Further, Hygraph allowed us to scale access to content management while, at the same time, keeping the highest level of confidentiality between content creators with different permissions.
Christian BaurHead of Gamescom & Events at gamescom

Easily backup with content versioning

Content versioning ensures that you can revert to previous versions of content if needed, which is critical in the event of accidental deletion, data corruption, or cyber-attacks. Content versioning provides an added safety net, allowing you to restore content to a known good state and limiting the loss of valuable data.

API security

API security involves taking measures like authentication, authorization, and encryption to protect against unauthorized access or manipulation of data transmitted via APIs. Hygraph generally includes security measures to protect its APIs, such as rate limiting, authentication, and access controls to prevent abuse or unauthorized use.

Regular updates and patch management

Keeping the CMS and its underlying technology stack up-to-date is crucial for security. Automatic patching and updates (handled by the vendor) ensure that known vulnerabilities are promptly addressed, reducing the window of opportunity for attackers to exploit weaknesses. Hygraph typically releases updates and patches to address security vulnerabilities.

#What’s next

A headless CMS is one of the most critical components for businesses that want to build a secure tech stack and maintain the security of their websites. Having features such as roles and permissions, API security, and regular updates and backups can make the difference between a secure CMS that leaves a business vulnerable to attack and one that forms the foundation of a secure tech stack.

Hygraph provides a secure CMS environment and the foundation for a modern enterprise tech stack. Learn more about what Hygraph offers as an enterprise headless CMS.

#Frequently asked questions

Is WordPress the most hacked CMS?

WordPress is the most hacked CMS. As the most popular content management system in the world, powering over 40% of websites worldwide, WordPress is also the most susceptible to attack, as many WordPress sites and plugins aren’t the most up-to-date.

Is a headless CMS more secure than a traditional CMS?

Yes, a headless CMS is more secure than a traditional CMS. The decoupled architecture of a headless CMS lowers the surface area that threats can attack. Additionally, if the frontend or backend of the CMS is attacked, it doesn’t automatically impact the other side. On the other hand, the opposite is true with a traditional CMS.

Blog Author

Jing Li

Jing Li

Jing is the Content Marketing Manager at Hygraph. Besides telling compelling stories, Jing enjoys dining out and catching occasional waves on the ocean.

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