WebAssembly: a Security Engineer’s Review

WebAssembly is an assembly dialect for an abstract computer, a bytecode format that runs on any device implementing a compatible runtime according to the WebAssembly specifications. It seems suspiciously similar to the write-once, run-anywhere promises of Sun Microsystem’s marketing videos about Java in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.

Does it sandbox better than Java’s virtual machine? Does introducing an assembly-like language to the web open security holes not possible within JavaScript runtimes? Does it create new opportunities for obfuscation, making it harder to audit what runs within our web browsers?

It’s encouraging to find that WebAssembly was clearly written with a strong PLT (programming language theory) focus, so the sort of holes that occur due to a lack of formalism will hopefully be thin on the ground. The specifications use pseudo-formalistic notation, strictly define the interoperation between the WebAssembly semantics and its host via an “embedder”, and don’t just shrug at every edge case and say “we don’t know, the implementor can implement whatever performant behaviour they like here”.

On this solid foundation rests a set of design decisions that shoot down some typical native code exploit vectors. The instruction and data stacks are separate, one not being able to corrupt the other. Both can only be controlled indirectly and must pass static verification before the runtime will execute it. Writing beyond the end of a buffer to overwrite the return address to change the execution path does not work, and nor will a large range of similar attacks based on control flow being manipulated by unanticipated data manipulation.

WebAssembly, like many macro assemblers, understands functions natively. Unlike macro assemblers, it understands them semantically beyond just CALL, RET and some syntactical sugar for handling stack frames and saving registers. WebAssembly only gives access to the declared parameters it was expecting to be pushed and will statically validate that the amount of elements left on the stack when leaving the function matches how many results it claims to return (which currently can be only zero or one).

There is no direct register manipulation, and the abstract machine is solely stack-based, whose stack operations are implicit as opposed to providing explicit operations like push or pop. The data stack’s implicit manipulations are presumably translated into register stores and loads by JIT compilers. This makes sense, as efficient register allocation has been a solved problem in computer science for quite some time.

(func $add-two-numbers (param $x i32) (param $y i32) (result i32)
  load_local $x
  load_local $y

While those decisions make sense for creating a safe, portable, optimisable VM, the result is something that doesn’t really feel like an assembly dialect. It feels more comparible to the Java Virtual Machine. That said, the key difference between WebAssembly and higher-level VMs like the JVM or .NET is that it doesn’t understand any data operation more sophisticated than moving around CPU register-sized values. It doesn’t have a view on how to group data together like a C struct, as it delegates that decision to the source language.

It can create what it terms a memory or get one from the embedder and refer to elements in it by index. This is how languages with direct memory management like C work under WebAssembly; their entire memory space is represented by a large memory slab allocated at the start. This means attacks that involve manipulating offsets into heap-allocated memory to gain unauthorised access to unrelated data are not prevented. Attacks like Heartbleed that exploited unvalidated input bounds into a custom ring buffer allocater would not be prevented by WebAssembly.

Source languages will be the primary way of using WebAssembly. Like JVM bytecode, it isn’t designed to be written in directly. Unlike JVM bytecode, it must support a far wider range of memory models than just Java’s. That’s why it has no concept of default memory allocators, memory models, how dynamic dispatch is implemented, and especially not garbage collection. This is why WebAssembly just gives programs a big slab of indexable memory and then calls it a day. One exception is function pointers, which it will not allow in memorys. Instead, function pointers can only be stored as opaque references in something WebAssembly calls a table. This was a smart move to avoid function-pointer overwriting to open the door again to malign data manipulation changing control flow.

Its frugal memory model is necessary for WebAssembly to be a target for native languages like C, C++, and Rust. These languages might not agree how to do struct alignment, dynamic dispatch, or how to allocate memory. If WebAssembly had an optional garbage collector, which variant would it implement? If it chose a mark and sweep collector, how could a language expecting deterministic destruction use it?

WebAssembly has a secure foundation for core execution semantics, but for target portability cannot hold opinions on higher-level features. This means each language will need to compile these features into the executable. Vulnerabilities or oversights in the language features’ implementations will then be present in the WebAssembly targets too. This isn’t a regression over other targets of the language, but it does increase the attack surface in the browser by adding additional complexity specific to the source language. By stepping down from JavaScript to WebAssembly, we move from the browser’s ubiquitous high-level language to its ubiquitous low-level language.

This means features are being reimplemented in WebAssembly executables that used to be consistent across all webapps. For example, we used to only need to understand JavaScript’s prototypal object system. Now someone analysing a webapp for vulnerabilities must know the edge cases of the object system of all source languages used for the app. Vulnerability-prone language conventions and common APIs that used to exist outside of the web ecosystem can now exist inside, if the entire stack is ported over to WebAssembly.

WebAssembly’s lower-level semantics could make it a more lucrative target for stealing CPU time on users’ devices, e.g. cryptocurrency mining. This isn’t a strong point however, as JavaScript can already be written in a highly-performant manner as to make this already viable, using dialects like asm.js.

There is a one-to-one mapping between WebAssembly executables and the WebAssembly text format, which browsers’ developer tools can convert between on demand. While this bridges some of the gap between comprehending WebAssembly and minified JavaScript, WebAssembly will be harder to reverse engineer and generally understand simply because it’s using a lower-level set of building blocks for programs. Source languages like Go also bundle large runtimes with WebAssembly executables, making them even harder to decipher.

Programs in the web browser being immediately readable was a battle lost long ago, starting when JavaScript minifiers and bundlers became popular. The era of seeing readable JavaScript source code by just clicking “View Source” has sadly long since passed. WebAssembly is yet another step in obfuscating web-delivered code further.

WebAssembly’s text format is curious. It isn’t just a direct mapping of WebAssembly opcodes to English words; it contains abbreviations, shorthands, and syntactical sugar. Despite being ostensibly a target language, some effort has been made into making it pleasant to write. This means viewing the text format of an executable can yield different results depending on how much syntactical sugar and conveniences one opts into. For example, the WebAssembly example above can also be written like this, making it almost resemble Lisp:

(func $add-two-numbers (param $x i32) (param $y i32) (result i32)
  (i32.add (load_local $x)
           (load_local $y)))

This theoretically makes it more pleasant to drop down into WebAssembly from a source language to optimise something tightly. It isn’t clear if, for example, C++’s asm keyword will eventually support inline WebAssembly when using it as a target on some compilers.

A WebAssembly program’s dealings with the outside world are determined by its embedder and host, so the security model will match that. Although WebAssembly was originally designed to be embedded in web browsers, it can be embedded in other contexts too. Browsers remain its defacto environment though, so the browser’s security model is the one most WebAssembly programs will be written against.

This already puts it on stronger footing than native programs or even the JVM, the latter of which had its security sandboxing abandoned by developers. Running Java programs within a locked-down sandbox has become a niche use case rather than the norm, meaning they should be treated the same as native applications for the most part.

All in all, WebAssembly is a solid attempt at creating a portable, secure VM for executing code from a wide range of memory models, object layouts, and paradigms. By not siding with a particular model of computation like the JVM does, WebAssembly becomes not just a viable target for memory-safe, class-based, object-oriented languages, but also for C, Haskell, Factor, and everything in between. While having a well defined model for managing memory and grouping data together would have frustrated attacks like those that manipulate indices into the heap, it would also have significantly reduced the range of source languages that could use it.

A universal, CPU-portable abstract machine like this is what the JVM couldn’t be, what minified JavaScript was pushed towards but shouldn’t be, and what the C abstract machine unsuitably became. There is not a “C abstract machine” beyond the C language’s specifications of how its executables should run, but combining that with some informal agreements like ABIs for non-mangled symbols on various platforms allowed it to become the lingua franca of direct, non-RPC cross-language communication. It’s how a natively-written function in CPython can invoke a function exported from Node.js’s V8, for example.

This is a poor state of affairs given that this abstract machine has no concept of even protecting return addresses in stackframes from nefarious manipulation. WebAssembly could become a more secure replacement for this in some higher-level domains, albeit with quite a bit more work.

However, users have been trained over the years not to install random applications, yet will happily browse to the sketchiest of websites. And why shouldn’t they? The browser was supposed to be a secure environment for viewing untrusted remote documents after all. As browser manufacturers pile more capabilities into browsers, including WebAssembly, the reasonable expectation of a simple, water-tight sandbox will become increasingly violated.

Once browsers become so complex that they become infeasible to secure, what secure, sandboxed, remote document-viewing standard will come along to replace it? I sincerely hope Google’s walled garden of AMP is not the answer the web community comes to.