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9.5.6 Mobile Code

Viruses and worms are programs that get onto a computer without the owner's knowledge and against the owner's will. Sometimes, however, people more-or-less intentionally import and run foreign code on their machines. It usually happens like this. In the distant past (which, in the Internet world, means last year), most Web pages were just static HTML files with a few associated images. Nowadays, increasingly many Web pages contain small programs called applets. When a Web page containing applets is downloaded, the applets are fetched and executed. For example, an applet might contain a form to be filled out, plus interactive help in filling it out. When the form is filled out, it could be sent somewhere over the Internet for processing. Tax forms, customized product order forms, and many other kinds of forms could benefit from this approach.

Another example in which programs are shipped from one machine to another for execution on the destination machine are agents. These are programs that are launched by a user to perform some task and then report back. For example, an agent could be asked to check out some travel Web sites to find the cheapest flight from Amsterdam to San Francisco. Upon arriving at each site, the agent would run there, get the information it needs, then move on to the next Web site. When it was all done, it could come back home and report what it had learned.

A third example of mobile code is a PostScript file that is to be printed on a PostScript printer. A PostScript file is actually a program in the PostScript programming language that is executed inside the printer. It normally tells the printer to draw certain curves and then fill them in, but it can do anything else it wants to as well. Applets, agents, and PostScript files are just three examples of mobile code, but there are many others.

Given the long discussion about viruses and worms earlier, it should be clear that allowing foreign code to run on your machine is more than a wee bit risky. Nevertheless, some people do want to run these foreign programs, thus the question arises: ''Can mobile code be run safely''? The short answer is: ''Yes, but not easily.'' The fundamental problem is that when a process imports an applet or other mobile code into its address space and runs it, that code is running as part of a valid user process and has all the power that user has, including the ability to read, write, erase or encrypt the user's disk files, email data to far-away countries, and much more.

Long ago, operating systems developed the process concept to build walls between users. The idea is that each process has its own protected address space and own UID, allowing it to touch files and other resources belonging to it, but not to other users. For providing protection against one part of the process (the applet) and the rest, the process concept does not help. Threads allow multiple threads of control within a process, but do nothing to protect one thread against another one.

In theory, running each applet as a separate process helps a little, but is often infeasible. For example, a Web page may contain two or more applets that interact with each other and with the data on the Web page. The Web browser may also need to interact with the applets, starting and stopping them, feeding them data, and so on. If each applet is put in its own process, the whole thing will not work. Furthermore, putting an applet in its own address space does not make it any harder for the applet to steal or damage data. If anything, it is easier since nobody is watching in there.

Various new methods of dealing with applets (and mobile code in general) have been proposed and implemented. Below we will look at three of these methods: sandboxing, interpretation, and code signing. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses.


The first method, called sandboxing, attempts to confine each applet to a limited range of virtual addresses enforced at run time (Wahbe et al., 1993). It works by dividing the virtual address space up into equal-size regions, which we will call sandboxes. Each sandbox must have the property that all of its addresses share some string of high-order bits. For a 32-bit address space, we could divide it up into 256 sandboxes on 16-MB boundaries so all addresses within a sandbox had a common upper 8 bits. Equally well, we could have 512 sandboxes on 8-MB boundaries, with each sandbox having a 9-bit address prefix. The sandbox size should be chosen to be large enough to hold the largest applet without wasting too much virtual address space. Physical memory is not an issue if demand paging is present, as it usually is. Each applet is given two sandboxes, one for the code and one for the data, as illustrated in for the case of 16 sandboxes of 16 MB each. Fig. 9-6(a), The basic idea behind a sandbox is to guarantee that an applet cannot jump to code outside its code sandbox or reference data outside its data sandbox. The reason for having two sandboxes is to prevent an applet from modifying its code during execution to get around these restrictions. By preventing all stores into the code sandbox, we eliminate the danger of self-modifying code. As long as an applet is confined this way, it cannot damage the browser or other applets, plant viruses in memory, or otherwise do any damage to memory.

As soon as an applet is loaded, it is relocated to begin at the start of its sand-box. Then checks are made to see if code and data references are confined to the appropriate sandbox. In the discussion below, we will just look at code references (i.e., JMP and CALL instructions), but the same story holds for data references as well. Static JMP instructions that use direct addressing are easy to check: does

Figure 9-6 (a) Memory divided into 16-MB sandboxes. (b) One way of checking an instruction for validity.

the target address land within the boundaries of the code sandbox? Similarly, relative JMPs are also easy to check. If the applet has code that tries to leave the code sandbox, it is rejected and not executed. Similarly, attempts to touch data outside the data sandbox cause the applet to be rejected.

The hard part is dynamic JMPs. Most machines have an instruction in which the address to jump to is computed at run time, put in a register, and then jumped to indirectly, for example by JMP (R1) to jump to the address held in register 1. The validity of such instructions must be checked at run time. This is done by inserting code directly before the indirect jump to test the target address. An example of such a test is shown in Fig. 9-6(b). Remember that all valid addresses have the same upper k bits, so this prefix can be stored in a scratch register, say S2. Such a register cannot be used by the applet itself, which may require rewriting it to avoid this register.

The code works as follows: First the target address under inspection is copied to a scratch register, S1. Then this register is shifted right precisely the correct number of bits to isolate the common prefix in S1. Next the isolated prefix is compared to the correct prefix initially loaded into S2. If they do not match, a trap occurs and the applet is killed. This code sequence requires four instructions and two scratch registers.

Patching the binary program during execution requires some work, but it is doable. It would be simpler if the applet were presented in source form and then compiled locally using a trusted compiler that automatically checked the static addresses and inserted code to verify the dynamic ones during execution. Either way, there is some run-time overhead associated with the dynamic checks. Wahbe et al. (1993) have measured this as about 4%, which is generally acceptable.

A second problem that must be solved is what happens when an applet tries to make a system call? The solution here is straightforward. The system call instruction is replaced by a call to a special module called a reference monitor on the same pass that the dynamic address checks are inserted (or, if the source code is available, by linking with a special library that calls the reference monitor instead of making system calls). Either way, the reference monitor examines each attempted call and decides if it is safe to perform. If the call is deemed acceptable, such as writing a temporary file in a designated scratch directory, the call is allowed to proceed. If the call is known to be dangerous or the reference monitor cannot tell, the applet is killed. If the reference monitor can tell which applet called it, a single reference monitor somewhere in memory can handle the requests from all applets. The reference monitor normally learns about the permissions from a configuration file.


The second way to run untrusted applets is to run them interpretively and not let them get actual control of the hardware. This is the approach used by Web browsers. Web page applets are commonly written in Java, which is a normal programming language, or in a high-level scripting language such as safe-TCL or Javascript. Java applets are first compiled to a virtual stack-oriented machine language called JVM (Java Virtual Machine). It is these JVM applets that are put on the Web page. When they are downloaded, they are inserted into a JVM interpreter inside the browser as illustrated in Fig. 9-7.

Figure 9-7 Applets can be interpreted by a Web browser.

The advantage of running interpreted code over compiled code, is that every instruction is examined by the interpreter before being executed. This gives the interpreter the opportunity to check if the address is valid. In addition, system calls are also caught and interpreted. How these calls are handled is a matter of the security policy. For example, if an applet is trusted (e.g., it came from the local disk), its system calls could be carried out without question. However, if an applet is not trusted (e.g., it came in over the Internet), it could be put in what is effectively a sandbox to restrict its behavior.

High-level scripting languages can also be interpreted. Here no machine addresses are used, so there is no danger of a script trying to access memory in an impermissible way. The downside of interpretation in general is that it is very slow compared to running native compiled code.


Yet another way to deal with applet security is to know where they came from and only accept applets from trusted sources. With this approach, a user can maintain a list of trusted applet vendors and only run applets from those vendors. Applets from all other sources are rejected as too dicey. In this approach, no actual security mechanisms are present at run time. Applets from trustworthy vendors are run as is and code from other vendors is not run at all or in a restricted way (sandboxed or interpreted with little or no access to user files and other system resources).

To make this scheme work, as a minimum, there has to be a way for a user to determine that an applet was written by a trustworthy vendor and not modified by anyone after being produced. This is done using a digital signature, which allows the vendor to sign the applet in such a way that future modifications can be detected.

Code signing is based on public-key cryptography. An applet vendor, typically a software company, generates a (public key, private key) pair, making the former public and zealously guarding the latter. To sign an applet, the vendor first computes a hash function of the applet to get a 128-bit or 160-bit number, depending on whether MD5 or SHA is used. It then signs the hash value by encrypting it with its private key (actually, decrypting it using the notation of Fig. 9-0). This signature accompanies the applet wherever it goes.

When the user gets the applet, the browser computes the hash function itself. It then decrypts the accompanying signature using the vendor's public key and compares what the vendor claims the hash function is with what the browser itself computed. If they agree, the applet is accepted as genuine. Otherwise it is rejected as a forgery. The mathematics involved makes it exceedingly difficult for anyone to tamper with the applet in such a way as its hash function will match the hash function that is obtained by decrypting the genuine signature. It is equally difficult to generate a new false signature that matches without having the private key. The process of signing and verifying is illustrated in Fig. 9-8.

Figure 9-8 How code signing works.

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