Deterring spammers with a comment key system

I recently found myself reimplementing the comment key system I use on this blog (I posted about it here) for a another purpose. Being more experienced now, my new implemention (which I should really put into use on this blog actually) is stand-alone in a separate file - so I'm blogging about it here both to help out anyone who reads this other than myself - and for myself as I know I'll forget otherwise :P

The basic algorithm hasn't changed much since I first invented it: take the current timestamp, apply a bunch or arbitrary transformations to it, put it as a hidden field in the comment form, and then reverse the transformations on the comment key the user submits as part of the form to discover how long they had the page loaded for. Bots will have it loaded for either less than 10-ish seconds, or more than 24 hours. Humans will be somewhere in the middle - at least according to my observations!

Of course, any determined spammer can easily bypass this system if they spend even a little bit of time analysing the system - but I'm banking on the fact that my blog is too low-value for a spammer to bother reverse-engineering my system to figure out how it works.

This time, I chose to use simple XOR encryption, followed by reversing the string, followed by base64 encoding. It should be noted that XOR encryption is certainly not secure - but in this case it doesn't really matter. If my website becomes a high-enough value target for that to matter, I'll investigate proper AES encryption - which will probably be a separate post in and of itself, as a quick look revealed that it's rather involved - and will probably require quite a bit of research and experimentation working correctly.

Let's take a look at the key generation function first:

function key_generate($pass) {
    $new_key = strval(time());
    // Repeat the key so that it's long enough to XOR the key with
    $pass_enc = str_repeat($pass, (strlen($new_key) / strlen($pass)) + 1);
    $new_key = $new_key ^ $pass_enc;
    return base64_encode(strrev($new_key));

As I explained above, this first XORs the timestamp against a provided 'passcode' of sorts, and then it reverses it, base64 encodes it, and then returns it. I discovered that I needed to repeat the passcode to make sure it's at least as long as the timestamp - because otherwise it cuts the timestamp short! Longer passwords are always desirable for certain, but I wanted to make sure I addressed it here - just in case I need to lift this algorithm from here for a future project.

Next up is the decoding algorithm, that reverses the transformations we apply above:

    function key_decode($key, $pass) {
    $key_dec = strrev(base64_decode($key));
    // Repeat the key so that it's long enough to XOR the key with
    $pass_dec = str_repeat($pass, (strlen($key_dec) / strlen($pass)) + 1);
    return intval($key_dec ^ $pass_dec);

Very similar. Again, the XOR passphrase has to be repeated to make it long enough to apply to the whole encoded key without inadvertently chopping some off the end. Additionally, we also convert the timestamp back into an integer - since it is the number of seconds since the last UNIX epoch (1st January 1970 as of the time of typing).

With the ability to create and decode keys, let's write a helper method to make the verification process a bit easier:

    function key_verify($key, $pass, $min_age, $max_age) {
    $age = time() - key_decode($key, $pass);
    return $age >= $min_age && $age <= $max_age;

It's fairly self-explanatory, really. It takes an encoded key, decodes it, and verifies that it's age lies between the specified bounds. Here's the code in full (it updates every time I update the code in the GitHub Gist):

(Above: The full comment key code. Can't see it? Check it out on GitHub Gist here.)

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