Get Free Air Tickets [Hoax]

These days, getting free stuffs from businesses is not an uncommon thing, even from airlines. There are plenty of offers out there. One of my friends has forwarded the following message in WhatsApp.


Free 2 tickets, wow ! I could not wait till I finished reading the message. Because it is all about 2 free tickets from the national carrier. This is unbelievable. So I did check the URL, first it seems that the URL is as same as the official URL of the carrier which is Everything seems pretty cool. So I read it again and checked the URL. Then it flipped. The URL is srilanká , notice the letter á, instead of a.

If you visit the website, it looks as follow. It looks real, almost real, even the logo is also there.


You need to provide some answers, basically YES and NO for 4 questions and congratulations, you secured 2 free tickets. In the next screen, you need to send this to your WhatsApp contacts. Then after you can claim your 2 free tickets.


This URL wont work for desktop browsers, it keeps saying that the offer is not valid for the region while it gets directed to the following URL The reason is pretty simple because it targets the mobile users as it needs WhatsApp to spread the news.

This is not a very smart phishing attack though it is mediocre. The attacker has matched the URL, it is so hard to notice the difference. The web site looks real too. However the Facebook section is not working at all. The connection is not secured (https). This is why you need to check for https always, make it a habit.

Although the offer of 2 free tickets raises your eyebrows, at the same time, it rings a bell. Because it is hard to believe that an airline is just throwing 2 free tickets for a simple survey like this. It would feel real, if it was like 50% for tickets or somewhat.

Finally, to avoid such malicious hoax, make sure you check the URL before you click it. Then look for https, a secure connection. Think before you share anything, specially when you are asked to share something via facebook, WhatsApp, Viber and etc. Last not the least, make sure you use your common sense too.

EDIT : Having https doesnt prove the authenticity. But not having https should ring a bell. So dont get confused. Checking for https (SSL EV) would be  good test.

Did you get the same message? If so what did you do?


Symmetric-Key Encryption using openSSL

I wrote few blog posts on Asymmetric Key encryption using PHPSecLib library recently and this blog post is on Symmetric-Key Encryption and I ll be using PHP openSSL extension for the implementation. OpenSSL is a open source library which implements SSL and other major cryptographic functions. It is extensively used in Linux, Windows and other operating systems. Luckily PHP got an extension, so we can straightaway use it.

Instead of PHPSecLib, openSSL can be used to implement RSA cryptography functions in PHP as well.

The major drawback in Symmetric-Key Encryption is the usage of the same key to encrypt and decrypt data. However unlike in Asymmetric-Key encryption (I would say RSA hereafter) there is no limit on the data size that can be encrypted and it is relatively faster than RSA. As a result RSA is used to exchange Symmetric Keys securely and then the client and the server continues to communicate based on symmetric-key encryption. Not only for communication but also we can use symmetric key encryption in data storage too. For an example before storing data on a database, it is a good practice to encrypt those data, in such a scenario symmetric key encryption is much more suitable than RSA.

There are plenty of other libraries which provide symmetric key encryption, however it is recommended to use libraries like openSSL or PHPSecLib as they are extensively tested and well maintained. My advice is to use openSSL as much as possible, however due to limitations on your server, it may not be possible to use openSSL for RSA but it can always be used for symmetric key encryption.

Will check the PHP code for the task. It is simple !

My PHP version is PHP Version 7.0.10 and using OpenSSL/1.0.2h, if you want to check yours you can use phpinfo(); function which gives all information regarding your PHP installation.

$text = 'This is a secret message that should be encrypted before saving it to the database so that even the database is compromised the attacker wont be able to steal data'; 

$encryption_key = 'password'; $iv = 'randomdigit16bit'; 

$encrypted_data = openssl_encrypt($text, 'aes-256-cbc', $encryption_key, OPENSSL_RAW_DATA, $iv); 

$encrypted_data = base64_encode($encrypted_data); 

The code is self explaining, openssl_encrypt is the function that should be used and $text is the data that should be encrypted, then the next parameter is the cipher method, $encryption_key is the key to decrypt the encrypted text. This needs to be stored as it is required later to decrypt the data. I ll discuss about storing keys securely in a future blog post, as it is quite out of the scope for this topic.

Decryption is to be carried out as follow:


$text = 'This is a secret message that should be encrypted before saving it to the database so that even the database is compromised the attacker wont be able to steal data';

$encryption_key = 'password';
$iv = 'randomdigit16bit';

$encrypted_data = openssl_encrypt($text, 'aes-256-cbc', $encryption_key, OPENSSL_RAW_DATA, $iv);

//$encrypted_data = base64_encode($encrypted_data);

$decrypted_data = openssl_decrypt($encrypted_data, 'aes-256-cbc', $encryption_key, OPENSSL_RAW_DATA, $iv);



Same as the openssl_encrypt function openssl_decrypt function could be used. Note that same $encryption_key and the $iv have been used.

Same as the $encryption_key, $iv should be same in encryption and decryption. $iv is known as the Initialization Vector which adds an extra layer of protection. It can be a random 16 bits string and the value should be stored as it requires in the decryption process as same as the encryption key.

The role of the $iv (Initialization Vector) is to differentiate the encrypted text. For an example the encryption key could be common per user or your web site etc. But you can use a random $iv per each encryption. As a result if you encrypt the same value using the same key, the result is going to be different when you use two different $iv.

Following method can be used to generate 16 bits IV. Make sure you store the IV otherwise decrypted data will not be able to decrypt back.

$iv = openssl_random_pseudo_bytes (16);

That is it, simple and handy isnt it?

How to include PHPSecLib

I got an interesting question on my blog post, RSA cryptography in PHP (How To?). Even the example, I have provided works fine with the source I have provided, you would probably get into some issues when trying it from the scratch. Including PHPSecLib is not straight forward. You cannot just use include() or include_once() functions directly. It follows PEAR standard (PHP Extension and Application Repository), therefore you need to use the following trick if you dont have PEAR installed in your server or in your LAMP/ WAMP deployment.

For an example consider following directory structure:

------- App
+ ----------------- Core
+ ----------------- Vendors

Assuming that your code lies in the “Core” directory, and you are planning to place PHPSecLib in the “Vendors” directory, you can include the following to your code so that it will find the PHPSecLib without no issue:

$path = '../vendors/phpseclib/'; 
set_include_path(get_include_path() . PATH_SEPARATOR . $path);

Working example:


$path = '../vendors/phpseclib/';
	set_include_path(get_include_path() . PATH_SEPARATOR . $path);

$rsa = new Crypt_RSA();
$keys = $rsa->createKey(2048);


$rsa->loadKey($keys['publickey']); // public key
$plaintext = 'I want to get encrypted !';

$ciphertext = $rsa->encrypt($plaintext);


$rsa->loadKey($keys['privatekey']); // private key
$text = $rsa->decrypt($ciphertext);

Note that we have explicitly defined the path for the library from the current directory where the executing script is located.

If you insist on using autoload instead, it can be achieved in the following manner. You cannot straight away let the autoload find the class as the file name and the class name are different. Therefore we need to change the path as the code can locate the Crypt_RSA class, which is ../vendors/phpseclib/Crypt/RSA.php


spl_autoload_register(function ($class_name) {
	$path = '../vendors/phpseclib/';
	set_include_path(get_include_path() . PATH_SEPARATOR . $path);
	include_once $class_name.'.php';

$rsa = new Crypt_RSA();
$keys = $rsa->createKey(2048);


$rsa->loadKey($keys['publickey']); // public key
$plaintext = 'I want to get encrypted !';

$ciphertext = $rsa->encrypt($plaintext);


$rsa->loadKey($keys['privatekey']); // private key
$text = $rsa->decrypt($ciphertext);

Hope you will find this information useful. Cheers !!

How to store keys (RSA) ?

The last post was about handling RSA cryptosystem in PHP. This post is covering a small aspect of the last post.

Once keys (Public and Private) are generated there should be a method of storing the keys, both private and the public keys to use later. Since the keys are having a specific format you are not able to store them in a raw format. It doesn’t work the next time when you try to use them.

There are few formats and methods we can use. In the last post, the generated keys are in PEM (Privacy Enhanced Mail) format. Dont get confused with that. I am suggesting a technique to store the keys. There are many other ways to get this accomplished. Among them base64 encoding/ decoding would be quite handy and easy.

PEM formatted private key is noted below.

Proc-Type: 4,ENCRYPTED


Base64 encoded key (note that it appears as a single line, no line breaks).


You can simply use a “TEXT data typed” filed in MySQL table to store base64 encoded key pair and then when it is needed just base64 decode and use it. Even you can apply further encryption against the base64_encoded string to make the key much more secure. You can hash the base64_encoded string and create signatures of the keys as another security measurement.

Simply use the base64_encode( ) and base64_decode( ) functions in PHP.

$encoded_key = base64_encode(myRSA::$privateKey);

$private_key = base64_decode($encoded_key);

NOTE: base64 encoding doesn’t provide any additional security, it is purely assisting towards storing/ passing the keys in a more comfortable way. Therefore you need to use an additional security layer (eg: database data encryption) on top of the stored keys to make it much more secure.

RSA cryptography in PHP (How To?)

Being security is one of the utmost considerations in current web site/ application development process, I am sure you have spent a lot of time writing codes to handle encryption in your applications.

In this article I am trying to present one of my favorite ways to solve this issue, the RSA encryption/ decryption handling in your PHP development.

This is quite straight forward as I am using PHPSecLib package. I was using openSSL library for PHP for few years and recently started dealing with this package. It is pretty cool implementation so I started loving it.

First of all you need to get the package, it is available to download[1] and it comes with MIT license[2], GPL compatible[3].

If your intention is to use PHPSecLib only for RSA encryption and decryption I suggest including only two directories which are Crypt and Math in your production environment.

First step towards the RSA encryption is to create the public and private keys. Note that I have secured the keys with a passphrase.

$rsa = new Crypt_RSA();

echo $keys['privatekey'];
echo $keys['publickey'];

The code is self explaining. createKey() method is taking the bit value of the key and output an array which contains the Private and Public keys. setPassword() is optional, you can omit it if you dont want to create the keys with a passphrase. If you want to use 2048 bit key then provide 2048 as an argument in createKey() instead 1024.

Once keys are ready you can start the encryption. I am using using the public key. Passphrase is not required when encrypting.

$plaintext = 'Text to be transmitted securely !!!';
$ciphertext = $rsa->encrypt($plaintext);
echo $ciphertext;

Decryption goes as follow (using the private key), note that the passphrase is mandatory:

$re_plaintText =  $rsa->decrypt($ciphertext);
echo $re_plaintText;

I have written a static class to demonstrate how encryption can be carried out. Please check the following:

***DO NOT use this code in your production env as the code lacks lot of fine tuning and security measures***

This is just to illustrate how the PHPSecLib can be used in a code



class myRSA
	public static $privateKey = '';
	public static $publicKey = '';
	public static $keyPhrase = '';
	public static function createKeyPair()
		$rsa = new Crypt_RSA();
		$password = base64_encode(sha1(time().rand(100000,999999)));
		$rsa->setPassword($password );

	public static function encryptText($text)
		$rsa = new Crypt_RSA();
		$encryptedText = $rsa->encrypt($text);
		return $encryptedText;

	public static function decryptText($encryText)
		$rsa = new Crypt_RSA();
		$plaintext = $rsa->decrypt($encryText);
		return $plaintext;


//create keys

//Text to encrypt
$text = "A secret lies here, send the text via a secure mode";
echo 'Text : '.$text;

$secureText = myRSA::encryptText($text);
echo 'Encrypted : '.$secureText;

$decrypted_text =  myRSA::decryptText($secureText);
echo 'Decrypted Text : '.$decrypted_text;

PHPSecLib API Documentation is available here.[4] A handy reference to check when you get stuck or need more info on methods.





Think before calling an unknown number, you will be hacked ?

Interesting security advice is being circulated these days. It says;

Apparently “many are getting a missed call from the number +17675027697. Looks like a virus where calling back this number might hack your phone or something. Be Careful !

Can this be true?

When you got a missed call, you might call the number and check who the hell it is. Or at least you in return make another missed call. Can this act lead to a hacking of your mobile? Indeed NO, it is not possible. So you can rule out the risk of being hacked. In that context the message is a bloody hoax. But yes there is a BUT, there are some risks. In fact a social engineering attacks. Being more specific, a type of vishing[1].

Well first, the attackers can deceive you with a recording, imitating that you have reached to a lottery or a draw and you have won a grand prize (most probably some dollars) and then you will be directed through some menu options to select this and that and finally may ask for you credit card details (or some personal information such as social security number{NIC in SL} etc) and so on. Or else even it is possible to request your details such as email address via voice, so that the bot can record it and convert to text. There can be endless possibilities but the main motive is to collect your personal and/or financial information.

When you respond calling back the attacker, it get to know your phone number is real. That means he earns a real phone number. Real phone numbers are expensive than a real email. He can sell it for a good price in deep web. Advertisers or even hackers are interested in such info as they can flood you with advertisements or use social engineering to exploit more info from you. What if you provide your personal info such as age, city you are live in etc. A partially complete profile of you.

Other than that an attacker can do nothing. He cannot hack you via a call as there is no way to access your mobile phone OS or any other installed application via a phone call (unless you use such an app or an OS which enables such, surely not Android nor iOS). But if your mobile is infected with a virus that enables such functions, need not to mention that, you are in a grave. But in that case I dont think the attacker will use such a dumb technique to gain control. He can simply connect the phone via internet and access your mobile and check what you are doing via the phone’s camera. Sounds like a sci-fi movie scene but this is 100% practical and possible.

No party can charge you an extra amount (other than the standard tariffs) for the call you make, unless there is an pre-agreed agreement. Even the carrier itself cannot subscribe you to a service and charge you because you called a number. If such things in place you need to be informed once the call has been answered and seek your consent/ verification to move forward.

Finally, the message seems quite exaggerated. But better you refrain calling unknown numbers, doesnt matter local or foreign. Even you called back do not give any private information unless the person on the other side is verified, May be you are not going to provide any information but simply calling back the number and hanging the line (another missed call by you in that case) hints that your mobile number is real. You may be a target of a bot generating random phone numbers with miss calls and then try to check if the number is real.

Better you worry about above facts rather than worrying about getting your phone hacked.

Ref 1 :


Due to the nature of the stateless behavior of HTTP, managing the current state of a connected user is a tricky scenario to handle in web site development or rather in web application development.

Few solutions are in place already and $_SESSION is one of the ways available in PHP. $_SESSION, the global array is not my favorite choice but it is handy. The sever based session management approach is not 100% reliable but it would do the work in most of the cases.

On the other hand, distinguishing user inputs versus inputs from malicious bots seems quite challenging these days. Simple tricks such as “honeypot” are quite old and easy to overcome, of course bots are now capable enough to skip “honeypots” without much effort. Then comes much promising solutions such as Google’s new invention, reCAPTCHA where a sophisticated techniques can identified the origin of the inputs blocking spams on your site, web application etc.

However life is not that easy, there are plenty of scenarios where we need to come up with our own strategy to deal with these inputs. If you cannot use reCAPTCHA or any other 3rd party CAPTCHA solution then the best would be implementing one of your own. This is the riskiest but there can be instances that this is the only way forward. I was in such a situation few months back and I though of sharing how I overcame it.

Avoiding $_SESSION

It is not hard to find plenty of tutorials to follow, implementing simple CAPTCHA verification in PHP. Almost every solution is based on $_SESSION, using server based sessions, a global array in PHP. This is easy and simple. Few lines of code would do the trick. As same as the way mentioned in this article. I am not a fan of server based sessions therefore I wanted to skip it.

In this post I am trying to explain how I solved the stateless issue without using server based sessions.

Breaking the Problem

The main issue that we need to solve is identifying the legitimate requests/ inputs and filter out the rest. In order to achieve this, when the relevant input form has been requested by a client, the server adds an image which is a human readable text. Bots may not be able to identify what is in it. Then the user inputs the code and sends the request to the server. As it is not possible to include the verification code in the client side request, the server doesn’t know what has been sent earlier. That is where server based sessions comes for the rescue. It is possible to store the verification code in a session variable.  Then when the user has submitted the form, the server can simply checks if the entered verification code value matches the value in the session. If so it is a human, test passes. Since we are trying to omit using server based sessions, we need to come up with a way to identify what has been sent earlier.


Step 1

Following is a typical code snippet (captcha.php) to create the CAPTCHA image. It is pretty straight forward and it can be seen that the verification code has been assigned to the session variable, $_SESSION[‘rand_code’] = $string;


$string = '';

for ($i = 0; $i < 5; $i++) {     // this numbers refer to numbers of the ascii table (lower case)
$string .= chr(rand(97, 122)); }   
$_SESSION['rand_code'] = $string;   
$dir = 'fonts/';   
$image = imagecreatetruecolor(170, 60); 
$black = imagecolorallocate($image, 0, 0, 0); 
$color = imagecolorallocate($image, 200, 100, 90); // red 
$white = imagecolorallocate($image, 255, 255, 255);   imagefilledrectangle($image,0,0,399,99,$white); 
imagettftext ($image, 30, 0, 10, 40, $color, $dir."arial.ttf", $_SESSION['random_code']);   
header("Content-type: image/png"); 

Following shows how it has been included in the HTML, client side.

<form action="<?php echo $_SERVER['PHP_SELF']; ?>
" enctype="multipart/form-data" method="post"><input name="name" type="text" />

<input name="email" type="text" />

<textarea name="message"></textarea>

<img src="captcha.php" />

<input name="code" type="text" />

<input name="submit" type="reset" value="Send" />

When analyzing the HTML code, you will soon realize that the code can be exploited simply with a Cross Site Scripting (XSS) attack as it barely uses $_SERVER[‘PHP_SELF’] in form action. I will not be focusing on that since I am not going to use sessions here. Following is the modified prototype version.

Step 2

I have changed the client side code as follow. Notice that a hidden filed has been introduced. A randomly generated number with hash coded act as the reference id here. The reference has been passed when creating the CAPTCHA image and also it gets submitted when the user submits the form.

require_once 'dataBaseConnection.php';
<form action="verify.php" enctype="multipart/form-data" method="post">
Name: <input name="name" type="text" />

Email <input name="email" type="text" />

<textarea name="message"></textarea>

<!--?PHP   $captchaId = sha1(rand(1000000,9999999).time());  dataBaseConnection::registerReference($captchaId);  $path='captcha.php?ref='.$captchaId;   ?--> <img src=""<?PHP" /> "/>
Enter the above code
<input name="c_id" type="hidden" value="<?PHP echo $captchaId; ?>" />

<input name="code" type="text" />

<input name="submit" type="submit" value="Send" />

and then the captcha.php has been modified too.

$string = '';
$refCode = '';

$refCode = $_GET['ref'];
die('<error>NO REF CODE FOUND !</error>');

for ($i = 0; $i < 8; $i++)
// this numbers refer to numbers of the ascii table (lower case)
$string .= chr(rand(97, 122));

$dir = 'fonts/';

$image = imagecreatetruecolor(170, 60);
$black = imagecolorallocate($image, 0, 0, 0);
$color = imagecolorallocate($image, 10, 10, 10); // red
$invColor = imagecolorallocate($image, 200, 200, 200); // invisible_ink
$white = imagecolorallocate($image, 255, 255, 255);

for($i=0; $i<100; $i++) 
imagettftext ($image, 20, rand(0,10), 0, $i*10, $invColor, $dir."ts.ttf", 'xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx'); 
imagettftext ($image, 30, 2, 10, 40, $color, $dir."ts.ttf", $string);
header("Content-type: image/png"); 
require_once 'dataBaseConnection.php'; dataBaseConnection::addVerificationCode($refCode, $string); //store the reference and the code in the database 

The static methods dataBaseConnection::registerReference stores the reference code which will later be an input to captcha.php. The system automatically logs the timestamp and set the status of the record to ‘CREATED’. Then in the captcha.php file static method dataBaseConnection::addVerificationCode adds the generated verification code to the relevant reference .

Step 3

Then comes the verify.php code which validates the entered code against the code in the database.

<?php require_once 'dataBaseConnection.php'; if(isset($_POST['submit']))   {  	$enteredCode=trim($_POST['code']);  	$referenceCode=trim($_POST['c_id']);     $dataSet = dataBaseConnection::getCode($referenceCode);     $timeTaken = time() - $dataSet['pvt_created_date'];     if($timeTaken>$dataSet['pvt_life_time'] || $dataSet['pvt_captcha_status']!='CREATED')
    	die('expired code');

    //var_dump($referenceCode); die($enteredCode);
		echo 'verified';//this is a human
		//Process the input as this is a legit request
		echo 'not verified';//most probably not a human

If both codes match then the static method dataBaseConnection::updateCode changes the status of the verification code to ‘VERIFIED’ in the database while the status has been set to ‘USED’ for the verification code if they dont match. That expires the verification code and it will not be possible to use it again. Further there is a check to make sure that the code has not been expired too.

How secure this is

It is not difficult to train a bot to reading CAPTCHAs. Therefore to make this much stronger it is required to have an image with higher entropy.

Another weak point is, the reference code is getting exposed to the attacker. However there reference number has no relationship with the code. Therefore the attacker cannot predict the code by cracking the reference code. This is possible as we store the reference and the verification code in the database.

An attacker cannot use a brute force attack as the status of the verification code has been updated after an attempt has been made disregarding the results. So once tried the code is set to expired. Setting lifetime of the code can be used to limit the time available for the attacker to crack the image. In this case 300 seconds.

Further it is required to restrict direct access to captcha.php file from the outside, simply using .htaccess entry. Otherwise it is possible to carry out a Denial-of-service attack targeting the generation of the captcha image which in return could have lead to a database failure.

It is important to track client details but will discuss it in another post.


How to implement a captcha verification solution without using server based sessions has been discussed above. Complete source code can be found here. Please check it out and let me know any flaws you observe. This is a mere implementation of the concept and no other aspects were considered when developing the code and no proper testing has been carried out. Therefore if you are going to use it in your code please be careful unless you know what you are doing.