Aaron Klotz at Mozilla

My adventures as a member of Mozilla’s GeckoView Team

2018 Roundup: Q2, Part 3 - Fleshing Out the Launcher Process

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This is the fourth post in my “2018 Roundup” series. For an index of all entries, please see my blog entry for Q1.

Yes, you are reading the dates correctly: I am posting this nearly two years after I began this series. I am trying to get caught up on documenting my past work!

Once I had landed the skeletal implementation of the launcher process, it was time to start making it do useful things.

Ensuring Medium Integrity

[For an overview of Windows integrity levels, check out this MSDN page – Aaron]

Since Windows Vista, security tokens for standard users have run at a medium integrity level (IL) by default. When UAC is enabled, members of the Administrators group also run as a standard user with a medium IL, with the additional ability of being able to “elevate” themselves to a high IL. When UAC is disabled, an administrator receives a token that always runs at the high integrity level.

Running a process at a high IL is something that is not to be taken lightly: at that level, the process may alter system settings and access files that would otherwise be restricted by the OS.

While our sandboxed content processes always run at a low IL, I believed that defense-in-depth called for ensuring that the browser process did not run at a high IL. In particular, I was concerned about cases where elevation might be accidental. Consider, for example, a hypothetical scenario where a system administrator is running two open command prompts, one elevated and one not, and they accidentally start Firefox from the one that is elevated.

This was a perfect use case for the launcher process: it detects whether it is running at high IL, and if so, it launches the browser with medium integrity.

Unfortunately some users prefer to configure their accounts to run at all times as Administrator with high integrity! This is terrible idea from a security perspective, but it is what it is; in my experience, most users who run with this configuration do so deliberately, and they have no interest in being lectured about it.

Unfortunately, users running under this account configuration will experience side-effects of the Firefox browser process running at medium IL. Specifically, a medium IL process is unable to initiate IPC connections with a process running at a higher IL. This will break features such as drag-and-drop, since even the administrator’s shell processes are running at a higher IL than Firefox.

Being acutely aware of this issue, I included an escape hatch for these users: I implemented a command line option that prevents the launcher process from de-elevating when running with a high IL. I hate that I needed to do this, but moral suasion was not going to be an effective technique for solving this problem.

Process Mitigation Policies

Another tool that the launcher process enables us to utilize is process mitigation options. Introduced in Windows 8, the kernel provides several opt-in flags that allows us to add prophylactic policies to our processes in an effort to harden them against attacks.

Additional flags have been added over time, so we must be careful to only set flags that are supported by the version of Windows on which we’re running.

We could have set some of these policies by calling the SetProcessMitigationPolicy API. Unfortunately this API is designed for a process to use on itself once it is already running. This implies that there is a window of time between process creation and the time that the process enables its mitigations where an attack could occur.

Fortunately, Windows provides a second avenue for setting process mitigation flags: These flags may be set as part of an attribute list in the STARTUPINFOEX structure that we pass into CreateProcess.

Perhaps you can now see where I am going with this: The launcher process enables us to specify process mitigation flags for the browser process at the time of browser process creation, thus preventing the aforementioned window of opportunity for attacks to occur!

While there are other flags that we could support in the future, the initial mitigation policy that I added was the PROCESS_CREATION_MITIGATION_POLICY_IMAGE_LOAD_PREFER_SYSTEM32_ALWAYS_ON flag. [Note that I am only discussing flags applied to the browser process; sandboxed processes receive additional mitigations. – Aaron] This flag forces the Windows loader to always use the Windows system32 directory as the first directory in its search path, which prevents library preload attacks. Using this mitigation also gave us an unexpected performance gain on devices with magnetic hard drives: most of our DLL dependencies are either loaded using absolute paths, or reside in system32. With system32 at the front of the loader’s search path, the resulting reduction in hard disk seek times produced a slight but meaningful decrease in browser startup time! How I made these measurements is addressed in a future post.

Next Time

This concludes the Q2 topics that I wanted to discuss. Thanks for reading! Coming up in H2: Preparing to Enable the Launcher Process by Default.