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9.5.7 Java Security

The Java programming language and accompanying run-time system were designed to allow a program to be written and compiled once and then shipped over the Internet in binary form and run on any machine supporting Java. Security was a part of the Java design from the beginning. In this section we will describe how it works.

Java is a type-safe language, meaning that the compiler will reject any attempt to use a variable in a way not compatible with its type. In contrast, consider the following C code:

   naughty 3 func( )
     char * p;
     p = rand( );
     * p =0;

It generates a random number and stores it in the pointer p. Then it stores a 0 byte at the address contained in p, overwriting whatever was there, code or data. In Java, constructions that mix types like this are forbidden by the grammar. In addition, Java has no pointer variables, casts, user-controlled storage allocation (such as malloc and free) and all array references are checked at run time.

Java programs are compiled to an intermediate binary code called JVM (Java Virtual Machine) byte code. JVM has about 100 instructions, most of which push objects of a specific type onto the stack, pop them from the stack, or combine two items on the stack arithmetically. These JVM programs are typically interpreted, although in some cases they can be compiled into machine language for faster execution. In the Java model, applets sent over the Internet for remote execution are JVM programs.

When an applet arrives, it is run through a JVM byte code verifier that checks if the applet obeys certain rules. A properly compiled applet will automatically obey them, but there is nothing to prevent a malicious user from writing a JVM applet in JVM assembly language. The checks include

  1. Does the applet attempt to forge pointers?

  2. Does it violate access restrictions on private class members?

  3. Does it try to use a variable of one type as another type?

  4. Does it generate stack overflows or underflows?

  5. Does it illegally convert variables of one type to another?

If the applet passes all the tests, it can be safely run without fear that it will access memory other than its own.

However, applets can still make system calls by calling Java methods (procedures) provided for that purpose. The way Java deals with that has evolved over time. In the first version of Java, JDK (Java Development Kit) 1.0. applets were divided into two classes: trusted and untrusted. Applets fetched from the local disk were trusted and allowed to make any system calls they wanted. In contrast, applets fetched over the Internet were untrusted. They were run in a sandbox, as shown in Fig. 9-7, and allowed to do practically nothing.

After some experience with this model, Sun decided that it was too restrictive. In JDK 1.1, code signing was employed. When an applet arrived over the Inter-net, a check was made to see if it was signed by a person or organization the user trusted (as defined by the user's list of trusted signers). If so, the applet was allowed to do whatever it wanted. If not, it was run in a sandbox and severely restricted.

After more experience, this proved unsatisfactory as well, so the security model was changed again. JDK 1.2 provides a configurable fine-grain security policy that applies to all applets, both local and remote. The security model is complicated enough that an entire book can be written describing it (Gong, 1999), so we will just briefly summarize some of the highlights.

Each applet is characterized by two things: where it came from and who signed it. Where it came from is its URL; who signed it is which private key was used for the signature. Each user can create a security policy consisting of a list of rules. A rule may list a URL, a signer, an object, and an action that the applet may perform on the object if the applet's URL and signer match the rule. Conceptually, the information provided is shown in the table of Fig. 9-9, although the actual formatting is different and is related to the Java class hierarchy.

One kind of action permits file access. The action can specify a specific file or directory, the set of all files in a given directory, or the set of all files and directories recursively contained in a given directory. The three lines of Fig. 9-9 correspond to these three cases. In the first line, the user, Susan, has set up her permissions file so that applets originating at her tax preparer's machine, http://www.taxprep.com and signed by the company, have read access to her tax data located in the file 1040.xls. This is the only file they can read and no other applets can read this file. In addition, all applets from all sources, whether signed or not, can read and write files in /usr/tmp.

Figure 9-9 Some examples of protection that can be specified with JDK 1.2.

Furthermore, Susan also trusts Microsoft enough to allow applets originating at its site and signed by Microsoft to read, write, and delete all the files below the Office directory in the directory tree, for example, to fix bugs and install new versions of the software. To verify the signatures, Susan must either have the necessary public keys on her disk or must acquire them dynamically, for example in the form of a certificate signed by a company she trusts and whose public key she already has.

Files are not the only resources that can be protected. Network access can also be protected. The objects here are specific ports on specific computers. A computer is specified by an IP address or DNS name; ports on that machine are specified by a range of numbers. The possible actions include asking to connect to the remote computer and accepting connections originated by the remote computer. In this way, an applet can be given network access, but restricted to talking only to computers explicitly named in the permissions list. Applets may dynamically load additional code (classes) as needed, but user-supplied class loaders can precisely control on which machines such classes may originate. Numerous other security features are also present.

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