Chrome OS security review HOWTO
This document describes the Chrome OS security review process. It's aimed at feature owners, tech leads, and product managers.
The Chrome OS security review process' main goal is to ensure new features stay faithful to Chrome OS' security architecture. More details on what the review covers are described below in the review framework section, but at a high level the goal is to protect our users' data and devices. The security review process is designed to make sure that new features don't make it disproportionately easier for attackers to compromise user data or devices. In general, every Chrome OS feature requires a security review.
The security review process
Chrome OS development is structured around six-week cycles called milestones. Every six weeks a new release branch is created, based off our main development branch (also known as trunk or tip-of-tree). Accordingly, a new milestone is pushed to Chrome OS devices every six weeks. It takes seven to eight weeks from the time a branch is cut to the time a new software image built from that branch is pushed to devices on the stable channel.
A feature targeting a given milestone will be reviewed during that milestone's development cycle. The Chrome OS security team tracks features by looking at Launch bugs filed in crbug.com. As long as the feature has an associated launch bug, the security team will track it. The new launch bug template allows feature owners to initiate a security review by flipping the Launch-Security flag to ReviewRequested. The security team tracks this flag as well.
In order to streamline the process as much as possible, make sure that the launch bug links to a design doc that includes a section covering the security implications of the feature. The rest of this document describes what questions such a “Security considerations” section should answer and what concerns it should address.
Launch bugs include a set of cross-functional review flags, which includes the Launch-Security flag mentioned above. The security team will flip this flag to Approved after the feature owner has successfully engaged the security team to understand (and address or mitigate) the security implications of the feature. Don't think of the security review process as an arbitrary bar set by the security team that you have to pass no matter what. Instead, think of it as the process by which you take ownership of the security implications of the feature, so that you are shipping something that doesn't detract from the overall security posture of the product.
Even if you consider that the feature is trivial, or has no security implications, please refrain from flipping the security flag in the launch bug to NA or Approved yourself. In most cases, features are not as trivial as they initially appear. More importantly, the security team uses these flags to track features and work on our side. We will flip the security flag to Approved when the feature is ready.
Fast-track features will still require a full security review if the feature is modifying more than one component, where component can be understood as a single process or service. For example, if the feature is modifying two things that communicate over IPC, it would require a full security review. In other words, modifying a single component is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a feature to be fast-tracked from a security perspective. Many features that modify a single component are complex enough to require a full security review.
If the feature is big or complex, or if you find yourself implementing something that needs to go against the recommendations in this document, please reach out to the security team as soon as possible. Send email to email@example.com, and try to include a design doc, even if it's just an early draft. When in doubt, just reach out. We are always happy to discuss feature design. You can also book office hours for any questions or discussions.
The Chrome OS security team will normally not look at the implementation details of a feature -- there is just not enough time to read through thousands of lines of code each milestone. Instead, we prefer to focus on ensuring that the design of the feature is contributing to, rather than detracting from, the overall security posture of the system. The reason for this is two-fold: first, the time constraints mentioned before. Second is the fact that even with careful review bugs will likely slip through, and a sound, defensive design will ensure that these bugs don't end up being catastrophic. For particularly risky code we can always contract out a security audit.
The expectation is that the feature will be security-complete (e.g. the new system service will be fully sandboxed) by the time the branch is cut. Merging CLs that implement security features to release branches is risky, so we avoid it.
If the feature is enabled by default, the security flag in the launch bug tracking the feature must be flipped before branch point. This means that all the relevant information (e.g. a design doc with a “Security considerations” section) must be available well before the branch is cut, to give time for the security team to review the feature and flip the flag before branch point.
If the feature is kept behind a flag, the security bit in the launch bug must be flipped before the flag is enabled by default. This means that the feature must be security-complete by the time the flag is enabled by default. Even in this case we strongly recommend tackling security work earlier rather than later. It‘s normally not possible to address security concerns in a feature that’s complete without requiring costly refactoring or rearchitecting.
In general, a feature that properly addresses the questions and recommendations in this document can expect to have its security flag flipped by branch point.
Life of a security review
This section describes how we use launch bug labels to determine the status of a given launch bug and its progression through various states. It's useful context for feature owners to be able to request reviews and supply information properly and to clarify expectations on what should happen next at any point in time. Similarly, Chrome OS security team members find a detailed description of their role and responsibility in the review process:
- The process only kicks off once the Launch-Security flag set to ReviewRequested. If the feature isn't marked as such, it might not be ready for review. Feature owners are responsible for setting ReviewRequested and should make sure to supply a design doc with a “Security considerations” section before doing so.
- If the Launch-Security flag is set to ReviewRequested, the first thing the security reviewer will do is check for a design doc. If there isn't one, they will generally ask for one and flip the Launch-Security flag to NeedInfo. The feature owner should flip the flag back to ReviewRequested when the design doc is ready for review.
- If the design doc doesn't have a Security Considerations section, the security reviewer may ask for one. Offer a link to the review framework as a guide for how to write that section. Flip the Launch-Security flag to NeedInfo. The feature owner should flip the flag back to ReviewRequested when the design doc is ready for re-review.
- The security reviewer should use the review framework to evaluate if the feature is respecting security boundaries, handles sensitive data appropriately, etc. It's often also a good idea to consider existing features, in particular their security design and trade-off decisions made in previous reviews.
- If any security-relevant aspects are unclear or if there are concerns, the security reviewer should communicate this back to the feature owner via design doc comments and comment on the launch bug to clarify the security review status. Flip the Launch-Security flag back to NeedInfo.
- Security reviewers are encouraged to surface controversial design/implementation choices or aspects you're unsure about in the weekly Chrome OS security team meeting. This is useful so the rest of the team can suggest useful alternative angles and to provide historical context and high-level guidance on Chrome OS security philosophy.
- If necessary, the security reviewer and feature owner will iterate to resolve any questions or concerns. Use whatever means of communication seems most appropriate to make progress. For simple questions, document comments or email threads will work. For in-depth discussion of product requirements, design choices, and implications on security assessment, it‘s usually better to ask for a meeting. Note that it is generally the responsibility of the feature owner to drive the review process to a conclusion. However, the security reviewer should strive for clear communication on what remains to be addressed at any point in the process. As you have probably realized by now, the Launch-Security flag gets flipped between NeedInfo and ReviewRequested as the review progresses, always keeping track of who’s responsible for the next action.
- We‘re aiming to acknowledge a ReviewRequested flag for the upcoming milestone within seven days. This doesn’t mean the review needs to be completed in seven days. ReviewRequested means “the feature team has done everything they thought they had to, and now they need input from the security team”. It doesn‘t mean “we solemnly swear the feature is 100% complete”. Therefore, what we’re aiming to do within seven days is to unblock the feature team by letting them know what the next step is. As explained in this list, the next step could be more documentation, or an updated or more robust implementation. In any of those cases, or if the feature is not really ready for review, flip the review flag to NeedInfo and explain what's missing.
- Once everything looks good, the security reviewer should flip the review flag to Approved and document conclusions and aspects that were specifically evaluated in the security review in a bug comment. The review framework section is useful to structure this. The information in the comment is intended for future reference when consulting previous security review decisions for guidance. Also, in case aspects of a feature are later found to cause security issues, it's useful to understand whether these aspects surfaced in the security review and the reasoning behind review conclusions. Note that the purpose is not to blame security reviewers in case they have missed problems, but to help our future selves understand how we can improve the process as needed (for example by adding specific items to watch out for to the review framework).
- In case the review reaches an impasse, the security reviewer shouldn‘t just flip the review flag to NotApproved as we’re committed to engaging productively as much as we can. Instead, the current state of things should be surfaced and relevant leads be consulted to figure out a way forward.
Review framework - things to look at
Does the feature poke holes in existing security boundaries? This is not a good idea. Existing boundaries include:
- Chrome renderer process to Chrome browser process: this boundary is traversed only with Chrome IPC or Mojo. It should not be trivial for a Chrome renderer process to directly manipulate or control the Chrome browser process. For browser-specific guidelines, check out How To Do Chrome Security Reviews.
- Chrome browser process (running as user
chronos) to system services: this boundary is traversed with D-Bus. It should not be possible for the Chrome browser process to directly manipulate a system service or directly access system resources (e.g. firewall rules or USB devices).
- ARC++ container to Chrome browser or Chrome OS system: this boundary is traversed with Mojo IPC. It should not be possible for the container to directly manipulate resources outside of the container. Trust decisions should always be made outside of the container.
- Userspace processes to kernel: this boundary is traversed by system calls. It should not be possible for userspace to gain untrusted kernel code execution (this includes loading untrusted kernel modules). Seccomp (see the sandboxing guide for details) should be used to secure this boundary.
- Kernel to firmware: it should not be possible for a kernel compromise to result in persistent, undetectable firmware manipulation. This is enforced by Verified boot.
Are security boundaries still robust after the feature has been implemented? For example, a feature might be in theory respecting a boundary by implementing IPC, but if the IPC interface is designed so that the higher-privilege side implicitly trusts and blindly carries out what the lower-privileged side requests, then the security boundary has been weakened.
Does the feature require adding new boundaries? For example, ARC++ was a feature that required adding a new security boundary: the ARC++ container. A new security boundary, while sometimes necessary to restrict what untrusted code can do, also adds a layer that will need to be enforced and maintained going forward.
- Implement the principle of least privilege: give code only the permissions it needs to do its job, and nothing else. E.g. if code doesn‘t need to be root, it shouldn’t run as root. If it doesn‘t need to access the network, it shouldn’t have access to the network.
- See the sandboxing guide for more details.
- Prefer robust parsers, e.g. protobuf. Avoid implementing your own serialization and deserialization routines: buggy (de)serialization code is routinely the source of security bugs. These bugs are dangerous because they can occur on the trusted side of an IPC boundary, allowing a less privileged process to possibly get code execution in a more privileged process. If you absolutely must write custom code, the requirement for new serialization code is for the code to be thoroughly fuzzed (see the fuzzing documentation) or written in a memory-safe language like Rust.
- Don't reimplement IPC using pipes or sockets, use Mojo or D-Bus. The concern is the same as in the previous case: hand-written IPC is brittle, and bugs in IPC mechanisms could allow a less privileged process to subvert the execution of a more privileged process, which is the definition of a privilege escalation bug. Refer to the Mojo IPC security guidelines for more details.
- Any code handling non-trivial untrusted data must be fuzzed to ensure its robustness. See our fuzzing documentation for more information.
- Does the feature handle sensitive user data? Maintain Chrome OS‘s guarantee: user data is never exposed at rest (i.e. when the user is not logged in or when the device is off), and different users on the same device cannot access each other’s data.
- User data stored by the Chrome browser in the user‘s home directory is protected by Chrome OS’s user data encryption. If the feature accesses this data from outside a Chrome session (e.g. not running as the
chronos) user, how is it making sure that the data will not be saved to disk unencrypted?
- Does the feature expose existing sensitive data to less privileged contexts? This is dangerous, and should be avoided. If necessary, consider filtering the data that is made available, allowing only reading the minimum amount of data required, disallowing modifications, and take care to not allow cross-user modification of user data.
- What can an attacker gain by triggering the code added for the feature? For example, new code might be calling a previously unused system call with parameters received directly from another process over IPC. If that other process is compromised, and the new code doesn't validate these parameters, the feature just added that system call as attack surface exposed to all processes that can access the IPC endpoint.
- Are new libraries being used and what new packages are pulled into the image? If so, how confident are we about the quality of the code in the library? Do the upstream maintainers patch security bugs? Will the team adding the feature be responsible for updating the library when security bugs get discovered? Library code is subject to the same (or arguably more) scrutiny than code written by Chrome OS engineers: is it robust against malformed or malicious input? Can it be fuzzed?
- Is the code accessible to remote attackers? Is it exposed directly over the network? If so, consider whether this is really necessary, and whether it can be mitigated with firewall rules or other restrictions.
- Does the code use threads? Are you confident there are no race conditions? Consider using the most straightforward threading or multi-process constructs you can (like
- Does the code implement a state machine or a protocol? Will an attacker sending packets in the wrong order break things? Write the code in a defensive way, to be robust in the face of malicious input and to fail closed, this is, to fail by denying access or by refusing to carry out a request, instead of the opposite.
- Are there other assumptions prone to accidentally breaking in the future? This can include assuming an IPC is only ever called with certain parameters, or assuming a certain process is always present on the system, or that the state on disk for a file or a directory is always the same. If so, add a test to enforce the assumption, and revisit your code to be robust in the event of a broken expectation.
- If the feature is using cryptography for integrity, confidentiality, or authentication, reach out to the security team. You can always find us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can put you in contact with crypto experts to make sure that your use of cryptography is correct.
- There should be no need for features to roll their own crypto. Use well-established cryptographic libraries like BoringSSL or OpenSSL.
- Please check any dependencies you add for implementations of cryptographic algorithms or protocols and flag these to the security team before bringing in the dependency. This includes e.g. TLS client implementations, which are highly non-trivial to get right, and incur significant maintenance cost.
- Prefer to use high-level primitives. E.g. don't take an AES-CBC implementation and add your own padding, use a high-level primitive that simply encrypts and decrypts data provided a key.
- If you're using keys, what is the key management story? Where are keys kept? Do they need to be hardware-protected?
- Should key management tie in with our signing infrastructure? This is important if the keys are being used to sign code or other artifacts.
- Do we know how to rotate keys in case there's a compromise? If the feature is using cryptographic keys extensively, you must write a key rotation doc as part of the feature.
- For a quick primer on cryptography best practices, check out this newer list of cryptographic right answers, as well as this older reference of cryptographic right answers; but remember to reach out to the security team to validate your design.
For features that are security-sensitive, strive to add metrics that allow tracking whether the feature is functioning as expected. You should be able to answer whether the expectations you had regarding the state or behavior of devices in the field were correct or not. For example:
- If you're adding a feature that verifies signatures or hashes, either from the network or on disk, report the result of the verification.
- More generally, if you're adding a feature that needs to check the validity of data, consider reporting when you encounter malformed data.
- If you're adding a feature that depends on device state, like converting a file on disk to an updated format, consider reporting both the state before the feature, as well as the result of the operation.
The objective of this reporting is to identify blind spots in our security posture in the field. If a security-sensitive feature is failing, we should know about it. It's possible that we could learn about individual instances of the failure, maybe via bug reports, but without metrics we cannot find out about the extent of the problem.
UMA is the metrics infrastructure used in Chrome and Chrome OS. You can report metrics both from the Chrome browser and from system services.
Overall Chrome OS security architecture is inspired by a set of principles that help us make consistent decisions. They guide us towards solutions that achieve security trade-offs which make sense in the world our users live in. As part of the security review process, we evaluate whether new features strike the right balance with respect to our principles. This is not exact science - we often need to balance legitimate interest to add a new feature with slight deterioration of Chrome OS's overall adherence to the principles. In case of obvious conflicts, it is important though to explore whether the feature in question can be implemented in an alternative way that is more in line with the principles. If a better design is identified, please do make the effort to seriously consider it. Design improvements are a triple win: The feature team produces a shinier feature, users get something that works better, and the security team has fewer things to worry about.
These are our security principles:
- Secure by default: All Chrome OS features should offer adequate security without requiring the user to take further action. We don't ever want to end up in a situation where people seriously follow “10 absolutely essential Chrome OS security tweaks” guide documents on the internet.
- Don't scapegoat the user: Pushing security decisions on the user is sometimes unavoidable, in particular where there is no viable secure default that works for everyone. We want to avoid asking the user security-relevant questions as much as possible though and just figure out based on the situation what is the correct security choice for them. Are there other settings or decisions that have already been taken that can guide the decision? Can we identify relevant user segments automatically?
- Defense in depth: Layered security defenses are industry standard now. All features must be evaluated under the assumption that one or more security boundaries are broken by attackers. What would be the correct system behavior under that scenario?
- The perfect is the enemy of the good: There's always room for improvement when it comes to security features. Striving for ideal security is not only impossible in general, but often prevents or delays security improvements that are meaningful but do leave gaps in practice, so we need to strike a balance. When in doubt, evaluate choices against attack scenarios to determine how worthwhile a given security defense is.
- Protect user data, be transparent: Our ultimate goal is to protect our users' data. Security features help with that, but we must acknowledge that user behavior will always be part of the equation. In the light of that, we aim to be transparent so users are aware when they share their data or otherwise open it up to additional exposure. There is tension here to “secure by default” and don't scapegoat the user - this is intentional :-D