Posts Super Duper Secure Mode

Super Duper Secure Mode


The VR team is experimenting with a new feature that challenges some conventional assumptions held by many in the browser community. Our hope is to build something that changes the modern exploit landscape and significantly raises the cost of exploitation for attackers. Mitigations have a long history of being bypassed, so we are seeking feedback from the community to build something of lasting value.

Most importantly we plan to have fun with this project. This includes giving the experiment a slightly provocative name because we think it is funny, and it is a bit too early for something official.

Security vs. Performance: Reconsidering the trade-offs

We bounce between offensive and defensive roles on this team quite often. When working on browser exploits, our favorite target is always V8. JavaScript engine bugs are a mainstay for attackers for a variety of reasons; they provide powerful exploit primitives, there is a steady stream of bugs, and exploitation of these bugs often follows a straightforward template. JavaScript engine exploitation has not changed much over the years and generally follows the same pattern:

  • Fake an object
  • Get AddrOf Primitive
  • Achieve arbitrary write

We can effectively copy/paste our bug into a template and have something working fairly quickly. Attackers even have frameworks like PwnJS which allow for this quick conversion.

However, as a defender, this is a nightmare. The regular stream of bugs requires frequent security updates, and the ease of exploitation means attackers can quickly weaponize exploits, which is helpful when abusing the patch gap. This problem is not unique to V8, this is a common problem among most modern JavaScript engines. Google, Mozilla, Microsoft, and others try to mitigate this risk proactively with large investments in static analysis, bug bounties, and fuzzing. All of these allow for rapid identification of some of these issues, but inevitably, a number are missed. JavaScript engines remain a remarkably difficult security challenge for browsers.

Why? Well, the problem is in part due to a performance technology called “Just-In-Time Compilation” (JIT). JITs were introduced to browsers in 2008 to speed up specific tasks in JavaScript. JIT-enabled engines effectively take loosely-typed JavaScript and compile it to machine code just before it is needed. This process is sometimes referred to as “speculative optimization.” JavaScript code is optimized through a series of complex processing pipelines. These changes result in performance gains that are quite impressive. Developers have managed to make JavaScript performance comparable with C++, which is an impressive feat. However, a lot goes into this process. To provide some perspective, here is a high-level overview from a V8 presentation produced by Google in 2016.

TruboFan processing pipeline chart


The above chart is just one phase of the entire V8 processing pipeline. This does not include the parsers, interpreter, the recently-added second JIT called Sparkplug, or many other components. This is a remarkably complex process that very few people understand and it has a small margin for error.

Performance and complexity often come at a cost, and often we bear this cost in the form of security bugs and subsequent patches. Looking at CVE (Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures) data after 2019 shows that roughly 45% of CVEs issued for V8 were related to the JIT engine. Moreover, we know that attackers weaponize and abuse these bugs as well; an analysis from Mozilla shows that over half of the “in the wild” Chrome exploits abused a JIT bug, as illustrated in the charts below. Note “Edge” below refers to the legacy version of Edge.

Vulnerabities by type chart


Is JIT worth it?

Traditionally, browser developers are willing to accept this cost because users want their browsers to be “fast” but what if we simply disabled the JIT? This reduction of attack surface has potential to significantly improve user security; it would remove roughly half of the V8 bugs that must be fixed. For users, this means less frequent security updates and fewer emergency patches required. These updates and patches are common points of frustration for our customers, particularly those in large enterprise environments who must test updates before rolling them out.

There are benefits beyond just attack surface reduction. Due to how the V8 JIT works, several impactful mitigation technologies cannot be brought to bear in the renderer process. For example, Controlflow-Enforcement Technology (CET), a new hardware-based exploit mitigation from Intel, was disabled. Similarly, Arbitrary Code Guard (ACG) was not enabled due to the use of RWX memory pages in the process. This is unfortunate because the renderer process handles untrusted content and should be locked down as much as possible. By disabling JIT, we can enable both mitigations and make exploitation of security bugs in any renderer process component more difficult. Microsoft’s Matt Miller laid out this strategy in early 2017.

Mitigation Strategy

This reduction in attack surface kills half of the bugs we see in exploits and every remaining bug becomes more difficult to exploit. To put it another way, we lower costs for users but increase costs for attackers.

But what about performance?

Performance is important to the Edge team, and we are quite proud of the improvements we have made. It is a complicated topic that includes a wide range of issues including startup time, memory consumption, rendering time and more. JavaScript plays a key role in any browser story. JITs exist for a reason and that is to optimize JavaScript performance.

We looked at the results of disabling the JIT in our lab. The Edge performance lab runs hundreds of tests that mimic real-world sites and conditions to look at the impact of a change. We group these tests into categories such as power, startup, memory, and page load. First, let’s look at how many tests saw an improvement, regression, or no change.

Number of Tests Chart

We see that most tests see no changes with JIT disabled. There are a few improvements and regressions, but most tests remain unchanged. Anecdotally, we find that users with JIT disabled rarely notice a difference in their daily browsing. But how much variation did we see in the tests that changed? The chart below shows the average percentage improvement or regression in performance.

Average Improvement and Regression Chart

We find that disabling the JIT does not always have negative impacts. Our tests that measured improvements in power showed 15% improvement on average and our regressions showed around 11% increase in power consumption. Memory is also a mixed story with negatively impacted tests showing a 2.3% regression, but a larger gain on the tests that showed improvements. Page Load times show the most severe decrease with tests that show regressions averaging around 17%. Startup times, however, have only a positive impact and no regressions.

It is important to note that these results do not include Speedometer 2.0, the most referenced benchmark. Disabling JIT does result in significantly lower scores in JavaScript benchmarks. Our tests showed a decline as high as 58%. However, often users do not notice this impact because this benchmark tells only part of a larger performance story.

So, are the performance gains provided by JIT worth the resulting security bugs, updates, and foregone security mitigations? The answer to that question is dependent on several factors. Are you viewing a blog or playing a game online? Are you visiting a trusted or untrusted site? As we continue our journey with this experiment, we will look to explore these factors and the impacts they can have on our users.

Project Super Duper Secure Mode

Over the next few months, we will try to answer these questions with our Super Duper Secure Mode (SDSM) experiment. It will take some time, but we hope to have CET, ACG, and CFG protection in the renderer process. Once that is complete, we hope to find a way to enable these mitigations intelligently based on risk and empower users to balance the tradeoffs.

Currently, SDSM disables JIT (TurboFan/Sparkplug) and enables CET. At the moment, Web Assembly is not supported in this mode. We hope to slowly enable new mitigations and add Web Assembly support over the next few months as we continue testing and experimentation. You can find the feature under edge://flags in Edge Canary, Dev, and Beta.

Super Duper Secure Mode Flag

This is of course just an experiment; things are subject to change, and we have quite a few technical challenges to overcome. Also, our tongue-in-cheek name will likely need to change to something more professional when we launch as a feature. For now, we are going to continue having fun with it.

If you decide to test the feature, please send us your feedback through the Feedback menu in Microsoft Edge. We are eager to hear about your experience.

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.