Monthly Archives: November 2021

Report: Assessing the Viability of an Open-Source CHERI Desktop Software Ecosystem

CHERI (Capability Hardware Enhanced RISC Instructions) is an architectural extension to processor Instruction-Set Architectures (ISAs) adding efficient support for fine-grained C/C++-language memory protection as well as scalable software compartmentalisation. Developed over the last 11 years at SRI International and the University of Cambridge, CHERI is now the subject of a £187M UK Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) transition initiative, which is developing the experimental CHERI-enabled Arm Morello processor (shipping in 2022). In early 2021, UKRI funded a pilot study at Capabilities Limited (a Lab spinout led by Ben Laurie and I) to explore potential uses of CHERI and Morello as the foundation for a more secure desktop computer system. CHERI use case studies to date have focused on server and mobile scenarios, but desktop system security is essential as well, as it is frequently targeted in malware attacks (including ransomware) that also depend on plentiful software vulnerabilities. For this project, we were joined by Alex Richardson (previously a Senior Research Software Engineer at Cambridge, and now at Google), who led much of the development work described here.

In September 2021, we released our final report, Assessing the Viability of an Open-Source CHERI Desktop Software Ecosystem, which describes our three-staff-month effort to deploy CHERI within a substantive slice of an open-source desktop environment based on X11, Qt (and supporting libraries), and KDE. We adapted the software stack to run with memory-safe CHERI C/C++, performed a set of software compartmentalisation white boarding experiments, and concluded with a detailed 5-year retrospective vulnerability analysis to explore how memory safety and compartmentalisation would have affected past critical security vulnerabilities for a subset of that.

A key metric for us was ‘vulnerability mitigation’: 73.8% of past security advisories and patches (and a somewhat higher proportion of CVEs) would have been substantially mitigated by deploying CHERI. This number is not dissimilar to the Microsoft Security Response Center (MSRC)’s estimate that CHERI would have deterministically mitigated at least 67% of Microsoft’s 2019 critical memory-safety security vulnerabilities, although there were important differences in methodology (e.g., we also considered the impact of compartmentalisation on non-memory-safety vulnerabilities). One challenge in this area of the work was in establish de facto threat models for various open-source packages, as few open source vendors provide concrete definition of which bugs might (or might) constitute vulnerabilities. We had to reconstruct a threat model for each project in order to assess whether we could consider a vulnerability mitigated or not.

At low levels of the stack (e.g., 90% of X11 vulnerabilities, and 100% of vulnerabilities in supporting libraries such as giflib), vulnerabilities were almost entirely memory-safety issues, with very high mitigation rates using CHERI C/C++. At higher levels of the stack improved software compartmentalisation (e.g., enabling more fine-grained sandboxing at acceptable overheads) impacted many KDE-level vulnerabilities (e.g., 82% of Qt security notices, and 43% of KDE security advisories). Of particular interest to us was the extent to which it was important to deploy both CHERI-based protection techniques: while memory protection prevents arbitrary code execution in the vast majority of affected cases, the potential outcome of software crashing then required better compartmentalisation (e.g., of image-processing libraries) to mitigate potential denial of service. Of course, some vulnerabilities, especially at higher levels of the stack, were out of scope for our architectural approach — e.g., if an application fails to encrypt an email despite the user indicating via the UI that they require encryption, we have little to say about it.

Compatibility is also an important consideration in contemplating CHERI deployment: We estimated that we had to modify 0.026% LoC relative a 6-million line C and C++ source code base to run the stack with CHERI C/C++ memory safety. This figure compares favourably with %LoC modification requirements we have published relating to operating-system changes (e.g., in our 2019 paper on CheriABI), and a number of factors contribute to that. Not least, we have substantially improved the compatibility properties of CHERI C/C++ over the last few years through improved language and compiler support — for example, our compiler can now better resolve provenance ambiguity for intptr_t expressions through static analysis (CHERI requires that all pointers have a single source of provenance), rather than requiring source-level annotation. Another is that these higher-level application layers typically had less use of assembly code, fewer custom memory allocators and linkers, and, more generally, less architectural awareness. Along the way we also made minor improvements to CHERI LLVM’s reporting of specific types of potential compatibility problems that might require changes, as well as introducing a new CHERI LLVM sanitiser to assist with potential problems requiring dynamic detection.

The study is subject to various limitations (explored in detail in the report), not least that we worked with a subset of a much larger stack due to the three-month project length, and that our ability to assess whether the stack was working properly was limited by the available test suites and our ability to exercise applications ourselves. Further, with the Arm Morello board becoming available next year, we have not yet been able to assess the performance impact of these changes, which are another key consideration in considering deployment of CHERI in this environment. All of our results should be reproducible using the open-source QEMU-CHERI emulator and cheribuild build system. We look forward to continuing this work once shipping Arm hardware is available in the spring!

Rollercoaster: Communicating Efficiently and Anonymously in Large Groups

End-to-end (E2E) encryption is now widely deployed in messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Signal and billions of people around the world have the contents of their message protected against strong adversaries. However, while the message contents are encrypted, their metadata still leaks sensitive information. For example, it is easy for an infrastructure provider to tell which customers are communicating, with whom and when.

Anonymous communication hides this metadata. This is crucial for the protection of individuals such as whistleblowers who expose criminal wrongdoing, activists organising a protest, or embassies coordinating a response to a diplomatic incident. All these face powerful adversaries for whom the communication metadata alone (without knowing the specific message text) can result in harm for the individuals concerned.

Tor is a popular tool that achieves anonymous communication by forwarding messages through multiple intermediate nodes or relays. At each relay the outermost layer of the message is decrypted and the inner message is forwarded to the next relay. An adversary who wants to figure out where A’s messages are finally delivered can attempt to follow a message as it passes through each relay. Alternatively, an adversary might confirm a suspicion that user A talks to user B by observing traffic patterns at A’s and B’s access points to the network instead. If indeed A and B are talking to each other, there will be a correlation between their traffic patterns. For instance, if an adversary observes that A sends three messages and three messages arrive at B shortly afterwards, this provides some evidence that A talks to B. The adversary can increase their certainty by collecting traffic over a longer period of time.

Mix networks such as Loopix use a different design, which defends against such traffic analysis attacks by using (i) traffic shaping and (ii) more intermediate nodes, so called mix nodes. In a simple mix network, each client only sends packets of a fixed length and at predefined intervals (e.g. 1 KiB every 5 seconds). When there is no payload to send, a cover packet is crafted that is indistinguishable to the adversary from a payload packet. If there is more than one payload packet to be sent, packets are queued and sent one by one on the predefined schedule. This traffic shaping ensures that an observer cannot gain any information from observing outgoing network packets. Moreover, mix nodes typically delay each incoming message by a random amount of time before forwarding it (with the delay chosen independently for each message), making it harder for an adversary to correlate a mix node’s incoming and outgoing messages, since they are likely to be reordered. In contrast, Tor relays forward messages as soon as possible in order to minimise latency.

Mix Networks work well for pairwise communication, but we found that group communication creates a unique challenge. Such group communication encompasses both traditional chat groups (e.g. WhatsApp groups or IRC) and collaborative editing (e.g. Google Docs, calendar sync, todo lists) where updates need to be disseminated to all other participants who are viewing or editing the content. There are many scenarios where anonymity requirements meet group communication, such as coordination between activists, diplomatic correspondence between embassies, and organisation of political campaigns.

The traffic shaping of mix networks makes efficient group communication difficult. The limited rate of outgoing messages means that sequentially sending a message to each group member can take a long time. For instance, assuming that the outgoing rate is 1 message every 5 seconds, it will take more than 8 minutes to send the message to all members in a group of size 100. During this process the sender’s output queue is blocked and they cannot send any other messages.

In our paper we propose a scheme named Rollercoaster that greatly improves the latency for group communication in mix networks. The basic idea is that group members who have already received a message can help distribute it to other members of the group. Like a chain reaction, the distribution of the message gains momentum as the number of recipients grows. In an ideal execution of this scheme, the number of users who have received a message doubles with every round, leading to substantially more efficient message delivery across the group.

Rollercoaster works well because there is typically plenty of spare capacity in the network. At any given time most clients will not be actively communicating and they are therefore mostly sending cover traffic. As a result, Rollercoaster actually improves the efficiency of the network and reduces the rate of cover traffic, which in turn reduces the overall required network bandwidth. At the same time, Rollercoaster does not require any changes to the existing Mix network protocol and can benefit from the existing user base and anonymity set.

The basic idea requires more careful consideration in a realistic environment where clients are offline or do not behave faithfully. A fault-tolerant version of our Rollercoaster scheme addresses these concerns by waiting for acknowledgement messages from recipients. If those acknowledgement messages are not received by the sender in a fixed period of time, forwarding roles are reassigned and another delivery attempt is made via a new route. We also show how a single number can seed the generation of a deterministic forwarding schedule. This allows efficient communication of different forwarding schedules and balances individual workloads within the group.

We presented our paper at USENIX Security ‘21 (paper, slides, and recording). It contains more extensions and optimisations than we can summarise here. There is also an extended version available as a tech report with more detailed security arguments in the appendices. The paper reference is:
Daniel Hugenroth, Martin Kleppmann, and Alastair R. Beresford. Rollercoaster: An Efficient Group-Multicast Scheme for Mix Networks. Proceedings of the 30th USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security), 2021.

Trojan Source: Invisible Vulnerabilities

Today we are releasing Trojan Source: Invisible Vulnerabilities, a paper describing cool new tricks for crafting targeted vulnerabilities that are invisible to human code reviewers.

Until now, an adversary wanting to smuggle a vulnerability into software could try inserting an unobtrusive bug in an obscure piece of code. Critical open-source projects such as operating systems depend on human review of all new code to detect malicious contributions by volunteers. So how might wicked code evade human eyes?

We have discovered ways of manipulating the encoding of source code files so that human viewers and compilers see different logic. One particularly pernicious method uses Unicode directionality override characters to display code as an anagram of its true logic. We’ve verified that this attack works against C, C++, C#, JavaScript, Java, Rust, Go, and Python, and suspect that it will work against most other modern languages.

This potentially devastating attack is tracked as CVE-2021-42574, while a related attack that uses homoglyphs – visually similar characters – is tracked as CVE-2021-42694. This work has been under embargo for a 99-day period, giving time for a major coordinated disclosure effort in which many compilers, interpreters, code editors, and repositories have implemented defenses.

This attack was inspired by our recent work on Imperceptible Perturbations, where we use directionality overrides, homoglyphs, and other Unicode features to break the text-based machine learning systems used for toxic content filtering, machine translation, and many other NLP tasks.

More information about the Trojan Source attack can be found at, and proofs of concept can also be found on GitHub. The full paper can be found here.