Yehuda Katz is a member of the Ember.js, Ruby on Rails and jQuery Core Teams; his 9-to-5 home is at the startup he founded, Tilde Inc.. There he works on Skylight, the smart profiler for Rails, and does Ember.js consulting. He is best known for his open source work, which also includes Thor and Handlebars. He travels the world doing open source evangelism and web standards work.

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An Extensible Approach to Browser Security Policy

Alex Russell posted some thoughts today about how he wishes the W3C would architect the next version of the Content Security Policy.

I agree with Alex that designing CSP as a “library” that uses other browser primitives would increase its long-term utility and make it compose better with other platform features.

Alex is advocating the use of extensible web principles in the design of this API, and I wholeheartedly support his approach.

Background

You can skip this section if you already understand CSP.

For the uninitiated, Content Security Policy is a feature that allows web sites to opt into stricter security than what the web platform offers by default. For example, it can restrict which domains to execute scripts from, prevent inline scripts from running altogether, and control which domains the network stack is allowed to make HTTP requests to.

To opt into stricter security using the current version of CSP, a website includes a new header (Content-Security-Policy) which can contain a number of directives.

For example, in order to prevent the browser from making any network requests to cross-domain resources, a server can return this header:

Content-Security-Policy: default-src 'self'

This instructs the browser to restrict all network requests to the current domain. This includes images, stylesheets, and fonts. Essentially, this means that scripts run on your page will be unable to send data to third-party domains, which is a common source of security vulnerabilities.

If you want to allow the browser to make requests to its own domain, plus the Google Ajax CDN, your server can do this:

Content-Security-Policy: default-src 'self' ajax.googleapis.com

Factoring the Network Layer

If you look at what CSP is doing, it’s essentially a syntax for controlling what the network stack is allowed to do.

There are other parts of the web platform that likewise control the network stack, and more all the time. What you’d like is for all of these features to be defined in terms of some lower-level primitive—ideally, one that was also exposed to JavaScript itself for more fine-grained, programmatic tweaks.

Imagine that you had the ability to intercept network requests programmatically, and decide whether to allow the request to continue. You might have an API something like this:

var origin = window.location.origin;
 
page.addEventListener('fetch', function(e) {
  var url = e.request.url;
  if (origin !== url.origin) {
    // block the network request
    e.preventDefault();
  }
 
  // otherwise, allow the network request through
});

You would then be able to describe how the browser interprets CSP in terms of this primitive API.

You could even imagine writing a CSP library purely in JavaScript!

page.addEventListener('fetch', function(e) {
  if (e.type === 'navigate') {
    e.respondWith(networkFetch(url).then(function(response) {
      // extract CSP headers and associate them with e.window.id
      // this is a pseudo-API to keep the implementation simple
      CSP.setup(e.window.id, response);
 
      return response;
    });
  } else {
    if (!CSP.isAllowed(e.window.id, e.request)) {
      e.preventDefault();
    }
  }
});

The semantics of CSP itself can be expressed in pure JavaScript, so these primitives are enough to build the entire system ourselves!

I have to confess, I’ve been hiding something from you. There is already a proposal to provide exactly these network layer hooks. It even has exactly the API I showed above.

The Extensible Web

Extensible web principles give us a very simple path forward.

Continue iterating on the declarative form of the Content Security Policy, but describe it in terms of the same primitives that power the Navigation Controller proposal.

When web developers want to tweak or extend the built-in security features, they can write a library that intercepts requests and applies tweaks to the policy by extending the existing header syntax.

If all goes well, those extensions will feed into the next iteration of CSP, giving us a clean way to let platform users inform the next generation of the platform.

This approach also improves the likelihood that other features that involve the network stack will compose well with CSP, since they will also be written in terms of this lower level primitive.

Many of the benefits that Dave Herman outlined in the closing of my last post are brought into concrete terms in this example.

I hope to write more posts that explore how extensible web principles apply to platform APIs, both new and old.


Fellow web developers, let’s persuade Adam Barth, Dan Veditz, Mike West (the CSP specification editors) to factor the next version of CSP in terms of the new Navigation Controller specification.

Then, we will have the tools we need to extend the web’s security model forward.

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