Monthly Archives: August 2015

WebCrypto and the modern web app

There is a famous Mark Zuckerberg quote from 2012 where he states Facebook’s biggest mistake period (in mobile) was their focus on HTML5. It’s been over three years since that statement and a lot has changed. Despite that I still think if I were making a daily use application like Facebook I would do so as a traditional mobile application but let’s face it mobile apps are horrible for infrequent use.

What has changed? today we have browsers that can run Javascript at near-native speeds and the majority of browsers support enough HTML5 to build beautiful and touch friendly “app” experiences without the overhead of an actual application. But there is more to an “app” like experience than a fast touch friendly user user interface, apps also work when there is no network connection and historically web pages have not.

This might seem like a trivial point but consider how many times you have been in a building or location where there was no WiFi and your cellular coverage just didn’t cut it (sorry T-Mobile customers).

Service Workers go a long way to address this problem, and until they are better supported, Polyfills based on App Cache serve as a reasonable substitute, but the problem doesn’t stop there. You also have the problem of how you authenticate entities and protect data while offline; this is where WebCrypto comes in.

The security issues associated with using crypto in Javascript have been covered in great detail but I think Tony Arcieri does the best covering the topic. Long story short you have to be careful to mitigate all the traditional web risks along with following cryptographic best practices, but even when you do that you don’t have cryptographic keys that are in the sole control of the user.

This is because the code that has access to the client side keys is downloaded by the browser frequently and each time that happens the server has a chance to modify the code so it does what it sees fit. In-fact this is exactly what happened in 2007 with a mail provider called Hushmail.

With all that said it is important to keep in mind that the same argument can be made of the browser and and operating system you are using to read this. Like most things it ends up being a trade off, the most obvious example is that of updates. With a desktop application it can take ages to get a security patch deployed en-mass but with a web application it happens automatically and seamlessly (…and doesn’t require a reboot or restart).

The other end of that argument is that the attacker gets to use every one of those seamless updates as an opportunity to attack the core logic of the application. In operating system terms this attack would this would be a library injection. In a web application you would use Content Security Policy (CSP) to mitigate the risk just as you might customize library load paths on an operating system.

OK, so even though you can do crypto in the browser and the security risks can be managed to the same basic profile as performing the cryptography on the server why would you? The answer to that question really depends on the application but if we think about a modern web application the same way we do a mobile app you start to see lots of ways you might apply cryptography locally. Some examples include:

  • Protecting data at rest;
  • Authenticating the user to the offline application;
  • Protecting from a passive attacker with read access;
  • Mixed content sites where a trusted site gates access to a protected resource (via iframes and PostMessage).

It is also important to remember that cryptography is not a panacea. Even by encrypting data  (in your mobile app or web app) or by using signing with client side keys you have no guarantees how the those keys are protected by your applications host (browser or os), and even if you did there is very little anyone can do against physical attacks.

“If you think cryptography can solve your problem, then you don’t understand your problem and you don’t understand cryptography.” – Bruce Schneier

So what should your take away be? I want you to see that even though WebCrypto is not perfect, mobile and desktop applications have many of the same risks. I also believe despite its imperfection WebCrypto does have a place in the modern web stack and this is particularly true for infrequent tasks where the friction of app acquisition and other associated tasks prove to be a barrier to adoption.

Additionally I want to encourage you to carefully to consider the mistakes mobile application developers make so you you don’t repeat the them when you build these modern web based applications.

P.S. If you have not read Adam Shostack’s “Threat Modeling – Designing for Security” you should give it a look.