On Timeless Programming Books

Recently, the Dog Spanner wrote about Programming With Quartz, a book written at the tail end of 2005 but which is still useful to Mac developers everywhere. I have to agree, this book is still on my shelf and gets an airing every now and then when I need to do battle with custom drawing (even on iOS).

Today, I had a related moment of epiphany related to the immortal nature of a book, as I had a problem with memory allocation that saw me reaching to Mac OS X Internals: a Systems Approach by Amit Singh. This book was released just before Apple’s transition to Intel hardware, but is still for me a definitive reference on how Mac OS X works. If I need to know about the innards of HFS+, the memory allocator or anything at a similar level, it is to this book I turn.

There’s never really been anything that investigates the higher level components of Mac OS X in quite the same depth. When I need to refresh my knowledge of the UNIX APIs, I turn first to Advanced UNIX Programming, a book first published in 1985(!); but it is the 2004 edition that is still a canonical description of programming in the UNIX environment.

Notice that each of these books is around five years old, and yet still I find myself referring to them frequently. In the fast-changing world of software development, where books on the iPhone 3 SDK are woefully outdated, that’s a great achievement.

Honourable mention: a book I have on my shelf that deserves discussion here is Object Oriented Programming: An Evolutionary Approach by Brad Cox. Written in 1986, this lays out his vision for component-based software development using object oriented programming languages. In it he describes a little language he created called Objective-C and uses it to explain his vision. This book demonstrates that not all computing principles are long-lived. Today’s programming practices look nothing like the “Software ICs” of OOP, although we’re still stuck using Objective-C.

On the broken(?) Mac App Store

A day after the Mac App Store was launched, people are reporting that it has been cracked. There are two separate stories here, a vapourware circumvention of the FairPlay DRM used to generate the receipts and a report that certain apps aren’t validating the receipts properly. We can ignore the first case for the moment: it’s important, and if it’s true then Apple needs to fix it (and co-ordinate updating the validation code with us third-party developers). But for the moment, it’s more important that developers are implementing the protections that are in place in their applications – it’s those applications that are supposed to be protected.

Let’s skip, for the moment, the question of whether DRM or anti-cracking mechanisms are ethically right, worthwhile, or how much effort you want to put into them. Apple have done most of the legwork, in providing a vendor-signed receipt that’s part of your signed app bundle. What you need to do is:

  • Check whether you have a receipt
  • Check whether Apple signed the receipt you have
  • Check whether the receipt is valid for your product
  • Check whether the receipt is valid for this version of your product
  • Check whether the receipt is valid for this computer

That’s it in a nutshell. Of course, some nutshells surround very big and complex nuts, and that’s true in this case:

  • There’s some good example code for receipt validation at github/roddi/ValidateStoreReceipt, if you’re going to use it then don’t just paste it wholesale. If everyone uses the same code then it’s super-easy for someone to detect and strip that code from each instance.
  • Check at runtime, as well as before startup. If you just check at startup, then all an attacker needs to do is patch main() to jump straight into NSApplicationMain() and your app runs for free.
  • Code obfuscation is not a very effective tool. Having worked in anti-virus, I know it’s much easier to classify code based on what it does than what it is, and it’s quite easy to find the code that opens the receipt file, or calls exit(173). That said, some of the commercial obfuscation companies offer a guaranteed service, so you can still protect your revenue after the app gets cracked.
  • Update I have been advised privately and seen in a blog post that people are recommending hard-coding their app bundle IDs and version numbers into the binary rather than using Info.plist, because that file can be edited. Well, so can the app binary…and in either case you’d need to re-sign the product with a valid certificate to continue, because Apple have used the kill flag:
    heimdall:~ leeg$ codesign -dvvvv /Applications/Twitter.app/
    Format=bundle with Mach-O universal (i386 x86_64)
    CodeDirectory v=20100 size=12452 flags=0x200(kill) hashes=616+3 location=embedded
    Signature size=4169
    Authority=Apple Mac OS Application Signing
    Authority=Apple Worldwide Developer Relations Certification Authority
    Authority=Apple Root CA
    Info.plist entries=21
    Sealed Resources rules=4 files=78
    Internal requirements count=2 size=344

    Changing a hard-coded string in a binary file is not difficult. You can of course obfuscate the string, but the motivated cracker still finds the point where the comparison is made (particularly easily if you use NSStrings). Really, how far you want to go depends on how much you’re willing to spend.

Of course, Fuzzy Aliens Ltd has already been implementing receipt validation for customers, so if this is too hard for you or you don’t have the time… ;-)

A last word on publicising receipt-validation vulnerabilities

You and I both make our living by selling software, or by selling services to people who sell software. Crowing on the interwebs about how this application or that application doesn’t validate its receipts properly is not cool, because you are shitting on your own doorstep. There is no public benefit to public disclosure that class of vulnerability, because DRM is not a user security feature. Don’t do that. Send the developer a private message explaining your findings. Give them a chance to put extra effort into protecting their product, if that’s what they want to do.