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Encrypting Source Code Doesn’t Make It Safer

All the work you’re doing to hiding your code is about as useful as preventing right-click on images.

I’d love to think that’s all I have to say on the matter, that you all will read the subject, go “Yup!” and we’re done.

The reality is that I have to argue this, regularly, with people.

Here’s the code from a plugin out there:

<?php ${"\x47L\x4fB\x41\x4c\x53"}["w\x73\x78\x6e\x69\x66\x69\x6f\x71\x6c"]="\x73l_s\x65arch\x61bl\x65\x5fc\x6f\x6cu\x6d\x6e\x73";${"\x47L\x4fBAL\x53"}["\x66\x6b\x78xg\x63\x6ap\x68\x6d\x6ft"]="\x73\x6c\x5fdb";${"\x47\x4c\x4f\x42AL\x53"}["\x65\x62\x67\x79\x6b\x66\x64"]="\x69\x73\x5f\x73\x6c\x5fca\x74e\x67\x6f\x72\x69\x7a\x61\x74\x69\x6fn_\x63\x6f\x6c\x75\x6dn";${"\x47\x4c\x4fBA\x4c\x53"}

The whole file is like that. The developer explained it was done that way for ‘security’ — it would make things harder to hack. I pointed out that’s simply not true.

Here’s what having encrypted, hashed, packed code does:

  1. It makes your build process take longer.
  2. It adds another failure point into your code.
  3. It makes it harder for the end users, other developers (who write plugins), web hosts to debug, and you to debug.
  4. It makes you look like a developer with evil intents.
  5. It sets an expectation with users that this kind of code is ‘normal’ in WordPress.

Recently Sucuri posted about a redirect hack that works by putting junk code in your header.php file which looks rather similar:

Malicious injection in your header.php

The issue here is that an end user, your normal WordPress user, cannot tell the difference between the somewhat safe code I quoted before and this code. They see ‘gibberish’ where as I know they can use a hex decoder to translate ["w\x73\x78\x6e\x69\x66\x69\x6f\x71\x6c"] into ["wsxnifioql"] … which is still pretty terrible.

Well written code, well named functions, are self-explanatory. You see a function called redirect_404_pages() and you have a pretty good idea of what it’s for. You see a function named wsxnifioql() and good luck knowing what the heck that’s for. This goes back to the claim that the code is more secure. It’s not. It’s needlessly complicated, and as I shoed with the hex decoder tool, it can trivially be decrypted and read.

So what is the real point of hiding your code? Who are you trying to protect? What’s ‘safer’ about any of this?

The answer is that it’s about about you, you, you. You don’t want someone to take your great idea.

That’s it. And that’s foolish.

WordPress is GPLv2 (or later). Furthermore, to be hosted on WordPress.org, your code cannot be encrypted or hidden or otherwise non-human-readable. The basic reason is that WordPress’ success is due to it’s understandability and extendability. Anyone can read WordPress’ core code, parse it, learn from it, and enhance it. When you take that away from users, you isolate your code and prevent people from extending it.

This person, this developer, charges upwards of $1000 for the add ons to their code. Yes, a plugin that costs over a grand. It sounds economically sound to try and lock things down so people don’t steal their intellectual property. We can all understand that impetus. I support it. I also feel that part of being in an open source community is being aware of how your actions impact the world at large.

Because WordPress is open and because there is a standard expectation of non-encrypted code (except by evil-doers), the burden moves to developers to not hide their code that is installed on users’ servers. The code that is deployed to an end-user is expected to be human readable. This comes at a risk. I have a copy of a theme I bought, and I could give it away to anyone I wanted. They may not get updates, which means I have to be aware of the risk I’m introducing to my friends when I give them something like a premium theme or plugin.

Similarly, what are the risks of telling people it’s okay to install plugin code in uploads instead of the plugins folder? What are the risks of allowing people to think that encrypted code is generally okay? In and of themselves, neither action seems particularly dangerous. PHP code is PHP code, right? If it runs, you’re good. But the reality is not so. By installing code in uploads I’ve made it so it’s no longer fully protected by WordPress and ‘standard’ security practices. I’ve also made it riskier that my code would even run, since many hosts prevent executable code from running out of that folder for security.

So how do I meet the (assumed) criteria of not having someone rip off my code?

You don’t. Your machinations aren’t preventing it now, and they won’t prevent it tomorrow. Hexcode is easily parsed. Even the Zend framework has to be able to be reversed to be run, so a dedicated person will always find a way around it. And the majority of your users aren’t going to be the problem. It’s those extremes. So what you’ve done is wasted time, effort, and money to annoy the majority to stop the minority. Let people inspect your code. If someone steals it, there are laws to help you handle them. Use them. Theft is theft. The GPL may allow them to take your code, copy and expand on it, but it doesn’t let them violate your copyright.

All the work you’re doing to hiding your code is about as useful as preventing right-click on images. It doesn’t protect the end users, and it doesn’t protect your intellectual property.

2 replies on “Encrypting Source Code Doesn’t Make It Safer”

This is all true. This kind of boneheaded thinking really doesn’t add to improving security.

Furthermore, on some systems that may use the builtin security feature of PHP to disable_functions and disable_classes such encoding may not even work.

It is extremely arrogant not to mention obnoxious for a plugin author to think that base64_encode & base64_decode would be exempted from the list selected by a particular hosting provider.

I’ve seen a commercial plugin that not only encrypts its code, it pulls some (most?) of its encrypted code from a remote server on installation / update and stores it in MySQL. To execute the code, it must retrieve it from the db and decrypt it, then execute it. Quite apart from being one huge security disaster waiting to happen, it’s also horrendously slow. But functional, so its users still love it.

I haven’t looked at that plugin in a few years, and I really hope they’ve moved on from that model by now…

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