Old News, But Blog-worthy

There was an old article posted some time ago by James Gosling at Sun. I’ve been meaning to post about it but every time I had a spare moment, someone yanked it from me. In any case, in this article Gosling was shouting some ideas that Microsoft was breaking their Trustworty Computing Initiative’s rules by allowing C++ and C into the .NET family of developer products. Gosling was quoted as saying:

“If you look at the security model in Java and the reliability model, and a lot of things in the exception handling, they depend really critically on the fact that there is some integrity to the properties of objects. So if somebody gives you an object and says ‘This is an image’, then it is an image. It’s not like a pointer to a stream, where it just casts an image,”

Basically, Gosling wants people to feel that as soon as these products were made a part of the .NET product line, they made all other .NET code insecure due to violations of type safety.

Mr Gosling evidently hasn’t studied code access security 101. When an assembly is loaded in .NET it is verified by the CLR before it is allowed to execute. Verification is pretty extensive.

In brief, let’s consider what all happens when an assembly is loaded and executed. First off, the portable executable is validated to make sure it conforms to the PE/COEFF standard. Secondly, all the metadata is validated , making sure that all pointers have valid destinations. A symantec check looks for any sort of shinanigins such as circular inheritance. Next, the IL is verified to be valid and well-formed. As each method is JITed the code is verified to be memory type safe — looking for unsafe casts and attempts to access array indexes that are out of bounds. It probes for buffer overruns and underruns.

There is one caveat to all of this. C++ indeed cannot generally be verified. There is (currently) no way to verify type safety of code written in C++. So does this make Mr Gosling right about his statements? NO. He’s absolutely wrong — and I don’t just say that because I like pretending I know more than the CTO of a multi-national corporation. I say this because security policy in .NET by default rejects any code that cannot pass all of these verifications. To get .NET to run assemblies compiled in C++, it must have the permission to skip verification. If we look at the permission viewere in the .NET configuration tool, we can view any permission set that has the security permission selected. If we double click on the Security permission, there are several sub-permissions available to us. The one we are concerned with is the Skip verification permission. The diagram below depicts this setting in case you don’t feel like looking at this yourself.

This isn’t to say that Mr Gosling wasn’t right at all, but it does put a rather large kink in his argument that there is a HUGE security hole in .NET. Code that executes on the local machine will have this permission because by default all code running in the MyComputer zone runs with FullTrust. Full Trust includes all permissions — including the SkipVerification permission. Yes, if I’m honest with myself I have to say that is a problem, but not in the sense that someone will download code or execute something from the internet that will automatically wreck havoc on the entire type safety system. If I had one wish from he security team at Microsoft it would be to turn this feature off by default.

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