on "binary security of webassembly"
You may have seen an interesting paper cross your radar a couple months ago: Everything Old is New Again: Binary Security of WebAssembly, by Daniel Lehmann, Johannes Kinder and Michael Pradel. The paper makes some strong claims and I would like to share some thoughts on it.
In this regard, WebAssembly has some of the strongest isolation invariants in the whole platform. A WebAssembly module has access to nothing, by default: neither functionality nor data. Even a module's memory is isolated from the rest of the browser, both by construction (that's just how WebAssembly is specified) and by run-time measures (given that pointers are 32 bits in today's WebAssembly, we generally reserve a multi-gigabyte region for a module's memory that can contain nothing else).
All of this may seem obvious, but consider that a C++ program compiled to native code on a POSIX platform can use essentially everything that the person running it has access to: your SSH secrets, your email, all of your programs, and so on. That same program compiled to WebAssembly does not -- any capability it has must have been given to it by the person running the program. For POSIX-like programs, the WebAssembly community is working on a POSIX for the web that standardizes a limited-capability access to data and functionality from the world, and in web browsers, well of course the module has access only to the capabilities that the embedding web page gives to it. Mostly, as the JS run-time accompanying the WebAssembly is usually generated by emscripten, this set of capabilties is a function of the program itself.
Of course, complex WebAssembly systems may contain multiple agents, acting on behalf of different parties. For example, a module might, through capabilities provided by the host, be able to ask flickr to delete a photo, but might also be able to crawl a URL for photos. Probably in this system, crawling a web page shouldn't be able to "trick" the WebAssembly module into deleting a photo. The C++ program compiled to WebAssembly could have a bug of course, in which case, you get to keep both pieces.
I mention all of this because we who work on WebAssembly are proud of this work! It is a pleasure to design and build a platform for high-performance code that provides robust capabilities-based security properties.
the new criticism
Therefore it was with skepticism that I started reading the Lehmann et al paper. The paper focusses on WebAssembly itself, not any particular implementation thereof; what could be wrong about WebAssembly?
I found the answer to be quite nuanced. To me, the paper shows three interesting things:
Memory-safety bugs in C/C++ programs when compiled to WebAssembly can cause control-flow edges that were not present in the source program.
Unexpected control-flow in a web browser can sometimes end up in a call to eval with the permissions of the web page, which is not good.
It's easier in some ways to exploit bugs in a C/C++ program when compiled to WebAssembly than when compiled natively, because many common mitigations aren't used by the WebAssembly compiler toolchain.
Firstly, let's dicuss the control-flow point. Let's say that the program has a bug, and you have made an exploit to overwrite some memory location. What can you do with it? Well, consider indirect calls (call_indirect). This is what a compiler will emit for a vtable method call, or for a call to a function pointer. The possible targets for the indirect call are stored in a table, which is a side array of all possible call_indirect targets. The actual target is selected at run-time based on an index; WebAssembly function pointers are just indices into this table.
So if a function loads an index into the indirect call table from memory, and some exploit can change this index, then you can cause a call site to change its callee. Although there is a run-time type check that occurs at the call_indirect site to ensure that the callee is called with the right type, many functions in a module can have compatible types and thus be callable without an error.
There's a similar vulnerability regarding changing the operand to eval, instead. Strings are represented in linear memory as well, and there's no write protection on them, even if they are read-only data. If your write primitive can change the string being passed to eval, that's also a win for the attacker. More details in the paper.
This observation brings us to the last point, which is that many basic mitigations in (e.g.) POSIX deployments aren't present in WebAssembly. There are no OS-level read-only protections for static data, and the compiler doesn't enforce this either. Also WebAssembly programs have to bundle their own malloc, but the implementations provided by emscripten don't implement the "hardening" techniques. There is no addres-space layout randomization, so exploits are deterministic. And so on.
It must be said that for most people working on WebAssembly, security "mitigations" are... unsatisfactory. They aren't necessary for memory-safe programs, and they can't prevent memory-unsafe programs from having unexpected behavior. Besides, we who work on WebAssembly are more focussed on the security properties of the WebAssembly program as embedded in its environment, but not on the program itself. Garbage in, garbage out, right?
In that regard, I think that one answer to this paper is just "don't". Don't ship memory-unsafe programs, or if you do, don't give them eval capabilities. No general mitigation will make these programs safe. Writing your program in e.g. safe Rust is a comprehensive fix to this class of bug.
Finally, I think that many of the problems identified by this paper will be comprehensively fixed in a different way by more "managed" languages. The problem is that C/C++ pointers are capabilities into all of undifferentiated linear memory. By contrast, handles to GC-managed objects are unforgeable: given object A, you can't get to object B except if object A references B. It would be great if we could bring some of the benefits of this more capability-based approach to in-memory objects to languages like C and C++; more on that in a future note, I think.
In the end, despite my initial orneriness, I have to admit that the paper authors point out some interesting areas to work on. It's clear that there's more work to do. I was also relieved to find that my code is not at fault in this particular instance :) Onwards and upwards, and until next time, happy hacking!
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