General Considerations

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by Dominic Barnes | October 2013 | Enterprise Articles Networking & Telephony Open Source

In this article by Dominic Barnes, author of Node Security, we go over the general security considerations, particularly within JavaScript itself as well as Node.js applications in general.

(For more resources related to this topic, see here.)

Building secure Node.js applications will require an understanding of the many different layers that it is built upon. Starting from the bottom, we have the language specification that defines what JavaScript consists of. Next, the virtual machine executes your code and may have differences from the specification. Following that, the Node.js platform and its API have details in their operation that affect your applications. Lastly, third-party modules interact with our own code and need to be audited for secure programming practices.

First, JavaScript's official name is ECMAScript. The international European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) first standardized the language as ECMAScript in 1997. This ECMA-262 specification defines what comprises JavaScript as a language, including its features, and even some of its bugs. Even some of its general quirkiness has remained unchanged in the specification to maintain backward compatibility. While I won't say the specification itself is required reading, I will say that it is worth considering.

Second, Node.js uses Google's V8 virtual machine to interpret and execute your source code. While developing for the browser, you have to consider all the other virtual machines (not to mention versions), when it comes to available features. In a Node.js application, your code only runs on the server, so you have much more freedom, and you can use all the features available to you in V8. Additionally, you can also optimize for the V8 engine exclusively.

Next, Node.js handles setting up the event loop, and it takes your code to register callbacks for events and executes them accordingly. There are some important details regarding how Node.js responds to exceptions and other errors that you will need to be aware of while developing your applications.

Atop Node.js is the developer API. This API is written mostly in JavaScript which allows you, as a JavaScript developer, to read it for yourself, and understand how it works. There are many provided modules that you will likely end up using, and it's important for you to know how they work, so you can code defensively.

Last, but not least, the third-party modules that npm gives you access to, are in great abundance, which can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, you have many options to pick from that suit your needs. On the other hand, having a third-party code is a potential security liability, as you will be expected to support and audit each of these modules (in addition to their own dependencies) for security vulnerabilities.

JavaScript security

One of the biggest security risks in JavaScript itself, both on the client and now on the server, is the use of the eval() function. This function, and others like it, takes a string argument, which can represent an expression, statement, or a series of statements, and it is executed as any other JavaScript source code. This is demonstrated in the following code:

// these variables are available to eval()'d code // assume these variables are user input from a POST request var a = req.body.a; // => 1 var b = req.body.b; // => 2 var sum = eval(a + "+" + b); // same as '1 + 2'

This code has full access to the current scope, and can even affect the global object, giving it an alarming amount of control. Let's look at the same code, but imagine if someone malicious sent arbitrary JavaScript code instead of a simple number. The result is shown in the following code:

var a = req.body.a; // => 1 var b = req.body.b; // => 2; console.log("corrupted"); var sum = eval(a + "+" + b); // same as '1 + 2; console.log("corrupted");

Due to how eval() is exploited here, we are witnessing a "remote code execution" attack! When executed directly on the server, an attacker could gain access to server files and databases. There are a few cases where eval() can be useful, but if the user input is involved in any step of the process, it should likely be avoided at all costs!

There are other features of JavaScript that are functional equivalents to eval(), and should likewise be avoided unless absolutely necessary. First is the Function constructor that allows you to create a callable function from strings, as shown in the following code:

// creates a function that returns the sum of 2 arguments var adder = new Function("a", "b", "return a + b"); adder(1, 2); // => 3

While very similar to the eval() function, it is not exactly the same. This is because it does not have access to the current scope. However, it does still have access to the global object, and should be avoided whenever a user input is involved.

If you find yourself in a situation where there is an absolute need to execute an arbitrary code that involves user input, you do have one secure option. Node.js platform's API includes a vm module that is meant to give you the ability to compile and run code in a sandbox, preventing manipulation of the global object and even the current scope.

It should be noted that the vm module has many known issues and edge cases. You should read the documentation, and understand all the implications of what you are doing to make sure you don't get caught off-guard.

ES5 features

ECMAScript5 included an extensive batch of changes to JavaScript, including the following changes:

  1. Strict mode for removing unsafe features from the language.
  2. Property descriptors that give you control over object and property access.
  3. Functions for changing object mutability.

Strict mode

Strict mode changes the way JavaScript code runs in select cases. First, it causes errors to be thrown in cases that were silent before. Second, it removes and/or change features that made optimizations for JavaScript engines either difficult or impossible. Lastly, it prohibits some syntax that is likely to show up in future versions of JavaScript.

Additionally, strict mode is opt-in only, and can be applied either globally or for an individual function scope. For Node.js applications, to enable strict mode globally, add the –use_strict command line flag, while executing your program.

While dealing with third-party modules that may or may not be using strict mode, this can potentially have negative side effects on your overall application. With that said, you could potentially make strict mode compliance a requirement for any audits on third-party modules.

Strict mode can be enabled by adding the "use strict" pragma at the beginning of a function, before any other expressions as shown in the following code:

function sayHello(name) { "use strict"; // enables strict mode for this function scope console.log("hello", name); }

In Node.js, all the required files are wrapped with a function expression that handles the CommonJS module API. As a result, you can enable strict mode for an entire file, by simply putting the directive at the top of the file. This will not enable strict mode globally, as it would in an environment like the browser.

Strict mode makes many changes to the syntax and runtime behavior, but for the sake of brevity we will only discuss changes relevant to application security.

First, scripts run via eval() in strict mode cannot introduce new variables to the enclosing scope. This prevents leaking new and possibly conflicting variables into your code, when you run eval() as shown in the following code:

"use strict"; eval("var a = true"); console.log(a); // ReferenceError thrown – a does not exist

In addition, the code run via eval() is not given access to the global object through its context. This is similar, if not related, to other changes for function scope, which will be explained shortly, but this is specifically important for eval(), as it can no longer use the global object to perform additional black magic.

It turns out that the eval() function is able to be overridden in JavaScript. It can be accomplished by creating a new global variable called eval, and assigning something else to it, which could be malicious. Strict mode prohibits this type of operation. It is treated more like a language keyword than a variable, and attempting to modify it will result in a syntax error as shown in the following code:

// all of the examples below are syntax errors "use strict"; eval = 1; ++eval; var eval; function eval() { }

Next, the function objects are more tightly secured. Some common extensions to ECMAScript add the function.caller and function.arguments references to each function, after it is invoked. Effectively, you can "walk" the call stack for a specific function by traversing these special references. This potentially exposes information that would normally appear to be out of scope. Strict mode simply makes these properties throw a TypeError remark, while attempting to read or write them, as shown in the following code:

"use strict"; function restricted() { restricted.caller; // TypeError thrown restricted.arguments; // TypeError thrown }

Next, arguments.callee is removed in strict mode (such as function.caller and function.arguments shown previously). Normally, arguments.callee refers to the current function, but this magic reference also exposes a way to "walk" the call stack, and possibly reveal information that previously would have been hidden or out of scope. In addition, this object makes certain optimizations difficult or impossible for JavaScript engines. Thus, it also throws a TypeError exception, when an access is attempted, as shown in the following code:

"use strict"; function fun() { arguments.callee; // TypeError thrown }

Lastly, functions executed with null or undefined as the context no longer coerce the global object as the context. This applies to eval() as we saw earlier, but goes further to prevent arbitrary access to the global object in other function invocations, as shown in the following code:

"use strict"; (function () { console.log(this); // => null }).call(null);

Strict mode can help make the code far more secure than before, but ECMAScript 5 also includes access control through the property descriptor APIs. A JavaScript engine has always had the capability to define property access, but ES5 includes these APIs to give that same power to application developers.

Summary

In this article, we examined the security features that applied generally to the language of JavaScript itself, including how to use static code analysis to check for many of the aforementioned pitfalls. Also, we looked at some of the inner workings of a Node.js application, and how it differs from typical browser development, when it comes to security.

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About the Author :


Dominic Barnes

Dominic Barnes is a web developer as a hobbyist and by profession. Since writing HTML with Microsoft Notepad back in high school, he has grown in skill through the many opportunities he has had. With experiences in ColdFusion, ASP.NET, PHP, and now Node.js, his passion is to create applications that people find useful. To him, the user experience is paramount and requires writing secure and high-performance code, no matter what platform is being used.

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