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On the new Lion security things

This post will take a high-level view of some of Lion’s new security features, and examine how they fit (or don’t) in the general UNIX security model and with that of other platforms.

App sandboxing

The really big news for most developers is that the app sandboxing from iOS is now here. The reason it’s big news is that pretty soon, any app on the Mac app store will need to sign up to sandboxing: apps that don’t will be rejected. But what is it?

Since 10.5, Mac OS X has included a mandatory access control framework called seatbelt, which enforces restrictions governing what processes can access what features, files and devices on the platform. This is completely orthogonal to the traditional user-based permissions system: even if a process is running in a user account that can use an asset, seatbelt can say no and deny that process access to that asset.

[N.B. There’s a daemon called sandboxd which is part of all this: apparently (thanks @radian) it’s just responsible for logging.]

In 10.5 and 10.6, it was hard for non-Apple processes to adopt the sandbox, and the range of available profiles (canned definitions of what a process can and cannot do) was severely limited. I did create a profile that allowed Cocoa apps to function, but it was very fragile and depended on the private details of the internal profile definition language.

The sandbox can be put into a trace mode, where it will report any attempt by a process to violate its current sandbox configuration. This trace mode can be used to profile the app’s expected behaviour: a tool called sandbox-simplify then allows construction of a profile that matches the app’s intentions. This is still all secret internal stuff to do with the implementation though; the new hotness as far as developers are concerned starts below.

With 10.7, Apple has introduced a wider range of profiles based on code signing entitlements, which makes it easier for third party applications to sign up to sandbox enforcement. An application project just needs an entitlements.plist indicating opt-in, and it gets a profile suitable for running a Cocoa app: communicating with the window server, pasteboard server, accessing areas of the file system and so on. Additional flags control access to extra features: the iSight camera, USB devices, users’ media folders and the like.

By default, a sandboxed app on 10.7 gets its own container area on the file system just like an iOS app. This means it has its own Library folder, its own Documents folder, and so on. It can’t see or interfere with the preferences, settings or documents of other apps. Of course, because Mac OS X still plays host to non-sandboxed apps including the Finder and Terminal, you don’t get any assurance that other processes can’t monkey with your files.

What this all means is that apps running as one user are essentially protected from each other by the sandbox: if any one goes rogue or is taken over by an attacker, its effect on the rest of the system is restricted. We’ll come to why this is important shortly in the section “User-based access control is old and busted”, but first: can we save an app from itself?


Applications often have multiple disparate capabilities from the operating system’s perspective, that all come together to support a user’s workflow. That is, indeed, the point of software, but it comes at a price: when an attacker can compromise one of an application’s entry points, he gets to misuse all of the other features that app can access.

Of course, mitigating that problem is nothing new. I discussed factoring an application into multiple processes in Professional Cocoa Application Security, using Authorization Services.

New in 10.7, XPC is a nearly fully automatic way to create a factored app. It takes care of the process management, and through the same mechanism as app sandboxing restricts what operating system features each helper process has access to. It even takes care of message dispatch and delivery, so all your app needs to do is send a message over to a helper. XPC will start that helper if necessary, wait for a response and deliver that asynchronously back to the app.

So now we have access control within an application. If any part of the app gets compromised—say, the network handling bundle—then it’s harder for the attacker to misuse the rest of the system because he can only send particular messages with specific content out of the XPC bundle, and then only to the host app.

Mac OS X is not the first operating system to provide intra-app access control. .NET allows different assemblies in the same process to have different privileges (for example, a “write files” privilege): code in one assembly can only call out to another if the caller has the privilege it’s trying to use in the callee, or an adapter assembly asserts that the caller is OK to use the callee. The second case could be useful in, for instance, NSUserDefaults: the calling code would need the “change preferences” privilege, which is implemented by writing to a file so an adapter would need to assert that “change preferences” is OK to call “write files”.

OK, so now the good stuff: why is this important?

User-based access control is old and busted

Mac OS X—and for that matter Windows, iOS, and almost all other current operating systems—are based on timesharing operating systems designed for minicomputers (in fact, Digital Equipment Corp’s PDP series computers in almost every case). On those systems, there are multiple users all trying to use the same computer at once, and they must not be able to trip each other up: mess with each others’ files, kill each others’ processes, that sort of thing.

Apart from a few server scenarios, that’s no longer the case. On this iMac, there’s exactly one user: me. However I have to have two user accounts (the one I’m writing this blog post in, and a member of the admin group), even though there’s only one of me. Apple (or more correctly, software deposited by Apple) has more accounts than me: 75 of them.

The fact is that there are multiple actors on the system, but mapping them on to UNIX-style user accounts doesn’t work so well. I am one actor. Apple is another. In fact, the root account is running code from three different vendors, and “I” am running code from 11 (which are themselves talking to a bunch of network servers, all of which are under the control of a different set of people again).

So it really makes sense to treat “provider of HTTP responses” as a different actor to “code supplied as part of Accessorizer” as a different actor to “user at the console” as a different actor to “Apple”. By treating these actors as separate entities with distinct rights to parts of my computer, we get to be more clever about privilege separation and assignment of privileges to actors than we can be in a timesharing-based account scheme.

Sandboxing and XPC combine to give us a partial solution to this treatment, by giving different rights to different apps, and to different components within the same app.

The future

This is not necessarily Apple’s future: this is where I see the privilege system described above as taking the direction of the operating system.

XPC (or something better) for XNU

Kernel extensions—KEXTs—are the most dangerous third-party code that exists on the platform. They run in the same privilege space as the kernel, so can grub over any writable memory in the system and make the computer do more or less anything: even actions that are forbidden to user-mode code running as root are open to KEXTs.

For the last eleventy billion years (or since 10.4 anyway), developers of KEXTs for Mac OS X have had to use the Kernel Programming Interfaces to access kernel functionality. Hopefully, well-designed KEXTs aren’t actually grubbing around in kernel memory: they’re providing I/O Kit classes with known APIs and KAUTH veto functions. That means they could be run in their own tasks, with the KPIs proxied into calls to the kernel. If a KEXT dies or tries something naughty, that’s no longer a kernel panic: the KEXT’s task dies and its device becomes unavailable.

Notice that I’m not talking about a full microkernel approach like real Mach or Minix: just a monolithic kernel with separate tasks for third-party KEXTs. Remember that “Apple’s kernel code” can be one actor and, for example, “Symantec’s kernel code” can be another.

Sandboxing and XPC for privileged processes

Currently, operating system services are protected from the outside world and each other by the 75 user accounts identified earlier. Some daemons also have custom sandboxd profiles, written in the internal-use-only Scheme dialect and located at /usr/share/sandbox.

In fact, the sandbox approach is a better match to the operating system’s intention than the multi-user approach is. There’s only one actor involved, but plenty of pieces of code that have different needs. Just as Microsoft has the SYSTEM account for Windows code, it would make sense for Apple to have a user account for operating system code that can do things Administrator users cannot do; and then a load of factored executables that can only do the things they need.

Automated system curation

This one might worry sysadmins, but just as the Chrome browser updates itself as it needs, so could Mac OS X. With the pieces described above in place, every Mac would be able to identify an “Apple” actor whose responsibility is to curate the operating system tasks, code, and default configuration. So it should be able to allow the Apple actor to get on with that where it needs to.

That doesn’t obviate an “Administrator” actor, whose job is to override the system-supplied configuration, enable and configure additional services and provide access to other actors. So sysadmins wouldn’t be completely out of a job.

{ 4 } Comments

  1. Eric | July 27, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Can you elaborate on the changes to File Quarantine/XProtect please? I’m hoping that Apple has improved Mac OS X’s basic malware detection. Before, XProtect only guarded against files downloaded from 5 programs. I’m hoping that XProtect in Lion now “scans” all files, be it copied over the network or a removable media.


  2. Graham | July 29, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I’m not aware of any changes, except that the daily updating from the recent Snow Leopard update is in Lion. I think Apple’s approach is to make the least intrusive changes that protect against the most prevalent infection case: the socially-engineered web download. They’re more concerned with performance impact and false positive than with extending the coverage into infrequently-seen infection vectors (IMHO, of course). Whether that’s the approach they ought to take is, of course, subjective.

  3. SG | August 18, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Are all XPC helper apps mandatory-sandboxed? Or, if a sandboxed main app requires a feature for which no entitlement exists (sending arbitrary applescript, for example), can a special no-sandbox helper be created?

  4. SG | August 19, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    I found out by building one that it’s possible to have a non-sandboxed XPC service running out of a sandboxed app. Great!