CIS791: OP browser based project statement

As part of the web security class I’m taking this semester we’re required to put together a project in the last 6-ish weeks of class. The intent is to get us familiar with doing research and formulating a project based on our research. This project is a short one, really I don’t expect to do much more than scratch the surface of a project and show how cool it could be given enough time. Gotta have something interesting to talk about by the end of the semester though but little more. What I don’t want it to be though is a boring project that evaluates some platform or technology.

After doing a bunch of reading about “safe” subsets of Java and JavaScript (which has decidedly no relation to Java) I came to the conclusion that JavaScript is a mess. I love the idea of object capability languages but as close to a safe subset of JavaScript as some have got, I’m pretty sure trying to fix JavaScript isn’t for me.

the OP web browser

After reading the OP web browser paper when it was published back in 2008 I started looking for a reason to play around with it. It’s much more in line with my interests (software architecture as well as security). I especially like the idea of structuring an application using well established architectural concepts from OS design.

Separation is a huge deal in the OS (think separate process address spaces) and in the application space its making a come back. Breaking the browser up into smaller components with well defined interfaces and communication semantics is a great idea. From the security perspective it keeps browser plugins / components from stomping all over each other when one gets compromised. It also is an excellent way to exploit multi core systems. I always get super pissed when my flash player pins one of my CPUs to 100% and the whole browser gets dragged down with it while the other CPU is sitting idle.

potential contribution of this work

What I’m interested in is, of course learning some of the insides of this browser. But specifically I’m interested in the code that is interposed between different components of the browser (aptly named the kernel) and how much like a reference monitor it is or can be. Also the range of security policies it does / could enforce would be very interesting to discuss.

This latter point may actually require some work as it’s likely that OP could enforce any number of policies but that may take some heavy lifting to generalize the enforcement logic (this is pure speculation at this point). This would start looking like the LSM work from the Linux kernel.

When we start talking about policies, the granularity with which policies can be specified becomes important. Subjects and objects in operating systems are well understood for the most part. In a web browser that’s not so clear. The obvious things that come to mind are plugins (including instances of the java script engine) as subjects and components of the DOM and passive user data as objects (cookies, history, saved passwords etc).

Being the SELinux fanboy that I am I’m pretty convinced that a lot of the enforcement can be done in a user space object manager. This gives us the policy language (type enforcement) and policy enforcement point (the Linux kernel) for free but leaves the details of object definition anbd labeling us. It also does nothing for us as far as verifying the expected properties of our reference monitor (complete mediation, tamperproof and analysis for correctness). The design of OP itself will likely be a big help in verifying these properties, but this isn’t something I plan to spend much time on.

Conclusion

So there isn’t much to conclude yet. This is a basic statement of the project I’m undertaking for the rest of this semester, a jumping off point. Hopefully it won’t be too painful but just getting OP to install is a non-trivial task (I’m currently waiting for webkit to compile). I’ve already ran into some quirks in their build system which were pretty easily fixed but there isn’t a mailing list for the project or anything so I’m trying to track down a way to communicate with the project owners beyond sending emails to their personal accounts. We’ll see how receptive they are to suggestions soon enough.

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