Verifying Extensions’ Compliance with Firefox's Private Browsing Mode

Tags: Browsers, JavaScript, Programming Languages, Security, Verification, Types

Posted on 19 August 2013.

All modern browsers now support a “private browsing mode”, in which the browser ostensibly leaves behind no traces on the user's file system of the user's browsing session. This is quite subtle: browsers have to handle caches, cookies, preferences, bookmarks, deliberately downloaded files, and more. So browser vendors have invested considerable engineering effort to ensure they have implemented it correctly.

Firefox, however, supports extensions, which allow third party code to run with all the privilege of the browser itself. What happens to the security guarantee of private browsing mode, then?

The current approach

Currently, Mozilla curates the collection of extensions, and any extension must pass through a manual code review to flag potentially privacy-violating behaviors. This is a daunting and tedious task. Firefox contains well over 1,400 APIs, of which about twenty are obviously relevant to private-browsing mode, and another forty or so are less obviously relevant. (It depends heavily on exactly what we mean by the privacy guarantee of “no traces left behind”: surely the browser should not leave files in its cache, but should it let users explicitly download and save a file? What about adding or deleting bookmarks?) And, if the APIs or definition of private-browsing policy ever change, this audit must be redone for each of the thousands of extensions.

The asymmetry in this situation should be obvious: Mozilla auditors should not have to reconstruct how each extension works; it should be the extension developers' responsibility to convince the auditor that their code complies with private-browsing guarantees. After all, they wrote the code! Moreover, since auditors are fallible people, too, we should look to (semi-)automated tools to lower their reviewing effort.

Our approach

So what property, ultimately, do we need to confirm about an extension's code to ensure its compliance? Consider the pseudo-code below, which saves the current preferences to disk every few minutes:

  var prefsObj = ...
  const thePrefsFile = "...";
  function autoSavePreferences() {
    if (inPivateBrowsingMode()) {
      // ...must store data only in memory...

    } else {
      // ...allowed to save data to disk...

      var file = openFile(thePrefsFile);
  window.setTimeout(autoSafePreferences, 3000);

The key observation is that this code really defines two programs that happen to share the same source code: one program runs when the browser is in private browsing mode, and the other runs when it isn't. And we simply do not care about one of those programs, because extensions can do whatever they'd like when not in private-browsing mode. So all we have to do is “disentangle” the two programs somehow, and confirm that the private-browsing version does not contain any file I/O.

Technical insight

Our tool of choice for this purpose is a type system for JavaScript. We've used such a system before to analyze the security of the ADsafe sandbox. The type system is quite sophisticated to handle JavaScript idioms precisely, but for our purposes here we need only part of its expressive power. We need three pieces: first, three new types; second, specialized typing rules; and third, an appropriate type environment.

  • We define one new primitive type: Unsafe. We will ascribe this type to all the privacy-relevant APIs.
  • We use union types to define Ext, the type of “all private-browsing-safe extensions”, namely: numbers, strings, booleans, objects whose fields are Ext, and functions whose argument and return types are Ext. Notice that Unsafe “doesn’t fit” into Ext, so attempting to use an unsafe function, or pass it around in extension code, will result in a type error.
  • Instead of defining Bool as a primitive type, we will instead define True and False as primitive types, and define Bool as their union.
We'll also add two specialized typing rules:
  • If an expression has some union type, and only one component of that union actually typechecks, then we optimistically say that the expression typechecks even with the whole union type. This might seem very strange at first glance: surely, the expression 5("true") shouldn't typecheck? But remember, our goal is to prevent privacy violations, and the code above will simply crash---it will never write to disk. Accordingly, we permit this code in our type system.
  • We add special rules for typechecking if-expressions. When the condition typechecks at type True, we only check the then-branch; when the condition typechecks at type False, we only check the else-branch. (Otherwise, we check both branches as normal.)
Finally, we add the typing environment which initializes the whole system:
  • We give all the privacy-relevant APIs the type Unsafe.
  • We give the API inPrivateBrowsingMode() the type True. Remember: we just don't care what happens when it's false!

Put together, what do all these pieces achieve? Because Unsafe and Ext are disjoint from each other, we can safely segregate any code into two pieces that cannot communicate with each other. By carefully initializing the type environment, we make Unsafe precisely delineate the APIs that extensions should not use in private browsing mode. The typing rules for if-expressions plus the type for inPrivateBrowsingMode() amount to disentangling the two programs from each other: essentially, it implements dead-code elimination at type-checking time. Lastly, the rule about union types makes the system much easier for programmers to use, since they do not have to spend any effort satisfying the typechecker about properties other than this privacy guarantee.

In short, if a program passes our typechecker, then it must not call any privacy-violating APIs while in private-browsing mode, and hence is safe. No audit needed!

Wait, what about exceptions to the policy?

Sometimes, extensions have good reasons for writing to disk even while in private-browsing mode. Perhaps they're updating their anti-phishing blacklists, or they implement a download-helper that saves a file the user asked for, or they are a bookmark manager. In such cases, there simply is no way for the code to typecheck. As in any type system, we provide a mechanism to break out of the type system: an unchecked typecast. We currently write such casts as cheat(T). Such casts must be checked by a human auditor: they are explicitly marking the places where the extension is doing something unusual that must be confirmed.

(In our original version, we took our cue from Haskell and wrote such casts as unsafePerformReview, but sadly that is tediously long to write.)

But does it work?


We manually analyzed a dozen Firefox extensions that had already passed Mozilla's auditing process. We annotated the extensions with as few type annotations as possible, with the goal of forcing the code to pass the typechecker, cheating if necessary. These annotations found five extensions that violated the private-browsing policy: they could not be typechecked without using cheat, and the unavoidable uses of cheat pointed directly to where the extensions violated the policy.

Further reading

We've written up our full system, with more formal definitions of the types and worked examples of the annotations needed. The writeup also explains how we create the type environment in more detail, and what work is necessary to adapt this system to changes in the APIs or private-browsing implementation.