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 twitter.com 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.

On authorization proxy objects

Authorization Services is quite a nice way to build in discretionary access controls to a Mac application. There’s a whole chapter in Professional Cocoa Application Security (Chapter 6) dedicated to the topic, if you’re interested in how it works.

The thing is, it’s quite verbose. If you’ve got a number of privileged operations (like, one or more) in an app, then the Auth Services code can get in the way of the real code, making it harder to unpick what a method is up to when you read it again a few months later.

Let’s use some of the nicer features of the Objective-C runtime to solve that problem. Assuming we’ve got an object that actually does the privileged work, we’ll create a façade object GLPrivilegedPerformer that handles the authorization for us. It can distinguish between methods that do or don’t require privileges, and will attempt to gain different rights for different methods on different classes. That allows administrators to configure privileges for the whole app, for a particular class or even for individual tasks. If it can’t get the privilege, it will throw an exception. OK, enough rabbiting. The code:

@interface GLPrivilegedPerformer : NSObject {
    id actual;
    AuthorizationRef auth;
- (id)initWithClass: (Class)cls;

@implementation GLPrivilegedPerformer

- (NSMethodSignature *)methodSignatureForSelector:(SEL)aSelector {
    NSMethodSignature *sig = [super methodSignatureForSelector: aSelector];
    if (!sig) {
        sig = [actual methodSignatureForSelector: aSelector];
    return sig;

- (BOOL)respondsToSelector:(SEL)aSelector {
    if (![super respondsToSelector: aSelector]) {
        return [actual respondsToSelector: aSelector];
    return YES;

- (void)forwardInvocation:(NSInvocation *)anInvocation {
    if ([actual respondsToSelector: [anInvocation selector]]) {
        NSString *selName = NSStringFromSelector([anInvocation selector]);
        if ([selName length] > 3 && [[selName substringToIndex: 4] isEqualToString: @"priv"]) {
            NSString *rightName = [NSString stringWithFormat: @"%@.%@.%@",
                                   [[NSBundle mainBundle] bundleIdentifier],
                                   NSStringFromClass([actual class]),
            AuthorizationItem item = {0};
            item.name = [rightName UTF8String];
            AuthorizationRights requested = {
                .count = 1,
                .items = &item,
            OSStatus authResult = AuthorizationCopyRights(auth,
                                                          kAuthorizationFlagDefaults |
                                                          kAuthorizationFlagExtendRights |
            if (errAuthorizationSuccess != authResult) {
                [self doesNotRecognizeSelector: [anInvocation selector]];
        [anInvocation invokeWithTarget: actual];
    else {
        [super forwardInvocation: anInvocation];

- (id)initWithClass: (Class)cls {
    self = [super init];
    if (self) {
        OSStatus authResult = AuthorizationCreate(NULL,
        if (errAuthorizationSuccess != authResult) {
            NSLog(@"couldn't create auth ref");
            return nil;
        actual = [[cls alloc] init];
    return self;

- (void)dealloc {
    AuthorizationFree(auth, kAuthorizationFlagDefaults);
    [actual release];
    [super dealloc];

Some notes:

  • You may want to raise a custom exception rather than using -doesNotRecognizeSelector: on failure. But you’re going to have to @catch something on failure. That’s consistent with the way Distributed Objects handles authentication failures.
  • The rights it generates will have names of the form com.example.MyApplication.GLActualPerformer.privilegedTask, where GLActualPerformer is the name of the target class and privilegedTask is the method name.
  • There’s an argument for the Objective-C proxying mechanism making code harder to read than putting the code inline. As discussed in Chapter 9, using object-oriented tricks to make code non-linear has been found to make it harder to review the code. However, this proxy object is small enough to be easily-understandable, and just removes authorization as a cross-cutting concern in the style of aspect-oriented programming (AOP). If you think this will make your code too hard to understand, don’t use it. I won’t mind.
  • As mentioned elsewhere, Authorization Services is discretionary. This proxy pattern doesn’t make it impossible for injected code to bypass the authorization request by using the target class directly. Even if the target class has the “hidden” visibility attribute, class-dump can find it and NSClassFromString() can get the Class object.

On the extension of code signing

One of the public releases Apple has made this WWDC week is that of Safari 5, the latest version of their web browser. Safari 5 is the first version of the software to provide a public extensions API, and there are already numerous extensions to provide custom functionality.

The documentation for developing extensions is zero-cost, but you have to sign up with Apple’s Safari developer program in order to get access. One of the things we see advertised before signing up is the ability to manage and download extension certificates using the Apple Extension Certificate Utility. Yes, that’s correct, all Safari extensions will be signed, and the certificates will be provided by Apple.

For those of you who have provisioned apps using the iTunes Connect and Provisioning Portal, you will find the Safari extension certificate dance to be a little easier. There’s no messing around with UDIDs, for a start, and extensions can be delivered from your own web site rather than having to go through Apple’s storefront. Anyway, the point is that earlier statement – despite being entirely JavaScript, HTML and CSS (so no “executable code” in the traditional sense of machine-language libraries or programs), all Safari extensions are signed using a certificate generated by Apple.

That allows Apple to exert tight control over the extensions that users will have access to. In addition to the technology-level security features (extensions are sandboxed, and being JavaScript run entirely in a managed environment where buffer overflows and stack smashes are nonexistent), Apple effectively have the same “kill switch” control over the market that they claim over the iPhone distribution channel. Yes, even without the store in place. If a Safari extension is discovered to be malicious, Apple could not stop the vendor from distributing it but by revoking the extension’s certificate they could stop Safari from loading the extension on consumer’s computers.

But what possible malicious software could you run in a sandboxed browser extension? Quite a lot, as it happens. Adware and spyware are obvious examples. An extension could automatically “Like” facebook pages when it detects that you’re logged in, post Twitter updates on your behalf, or so on. Having the kill switch in place (and making developers reveal their identities to Apple) will undoubtedly come in useful.

I think Apple are playing their hand here; not only do they expect more code to require signing in the future, but they expect to have control over who has certificates that allow signed code to be used with the customers. Expect more APIs added to the Mac platform to feature the same distribution requirements. Expect new APIs to replace existing APIs, again with the same requirement that Apple decide who is or isn’t allowed to play.

Why OS X (almost) doesn’t need root any more

Note: this post was originally written for the Mac Developer Network.

In the beginning, there was the super-user. And the super-user was root.

When it comes to doling out responsibility for privileged work in an operating system, there are two easy ways out. Single-user operating systems just do whatever they’re told by whoever has access, so anyone can install or remove software or edit configuration. AmigaDOS, Classic Mac OS and MS-DOS all took this approach.

The next-simplest approach is to add multiple users, and let one of them do everything while all the others can do nothing. This is the approach taken by all UNIX systems since time immemorial – the root user can edit all files, set access rights for files and devices, start network services on low-numbered ports…and everyone else can’t.

The super-user approach has obvious advantages in a multi-user environment over the model with no privilege mechanism – only users who know how to log in as root can manage the computer. In fact it has advantages in a single-user environment as well: that one user can choose to restrict her own privileges to the times when she needs them, by using a non-privileged account the rest of the time.

It’s still a limited mechanism, in that it’s all-or-nothing. You either have the permission to do everything, or you don’t. Certain aspects like the ability to edit files can be delegated, but basically you’re either root or you’re useless. If you manage to get root – by intention or by malicious exploitation – you can do anything on the computer. If you exploit a root-running network service you can get it to load a kernel extension: not because network services need to load kernel extensions, but because there is nothing to stop root from doing so.

And that’s how pretty much all UNIX systems, including Mac OS X, work. Before getting up in arms about how Apple disabled root in OS X, remember this: they didn’t disable root, they disabled the account’s password. You can’t log in to a default OS X installation as root (though you can on Mac OS X Server). All of the admin facilities on Mac OS X are implemented by providing access to the monolithic root account – running a software update, configuring Sharing services, setting the FileVault master password all involve gaining root privilege.

The way these administrative features typically work is to use Authorization Services, and the principle of least privilege. I devoted a whole chapter to that in Professional Cocoa Application Security so won’t go into too much detail here, the high-level view is that there are two components, one runs as the regular user and the other as root. The unprivileged part performs an authorisation test and then, at its own discretion, decides whether to call the privileged helper. The privileged part might independently test whether the user application really did pass the authorisation test. The main issue is that the privileged part still has full root access.

So Authorization Services gives us discretionary access control, but there’s also a useful mandatory test relevant to the super-user. You see, traditional UNIX tests for whether a user is root by doing this:

if (process.p_euid == 0) {

Well, Mac OS X does do something similar in parts, but it actually has a more flexible test in places. There’s a kernel authorisation framework called kauth – again, there’s a chapter in PCAS on this so I don’t intend to cover too much detail. It basically allows the kernel to defer security policy decisions to callbacks provided by kernel extensions, one such policy question is “should I give this process root?”. Where the kernel uses this test, the super-user access is based not on the effective UID of the calling process, but on whatever the policy engine decides. Hmm…maybe the policy engine could use Authorization Services? If the application is an installer, and it has the installer right, and it’s trying to get root access to the filesystem, then it’s allowed.

Apple could then do away with monolithic root privileges completely, allowing the authorisation policy database to control who has privileged access for what tasks with which applications. The advantage is that if a privileged process ever gets compromised, the consequences for the rest of the OS are reduced.