Visible to the public SaTC: CORE: Small: Preventing Web Side-channel Attacks via Atomic DeterminismConflict Detection Enabled

Project Details

Lead PI

Performance Period

Aug 31, 2018 - Aug 31, 2021


Johns Hopkins University

Award Number

Web browsers are vulnerable to side-channel attacks, which usually play an important, first-step role in jump-starting a chain of attacks. For example, a web-level precise clock can help adversaries to break operating system level memory protection mechanisms, such as address-space layout randomization (ASLR). Browser fingerprinting, a variation of web side channels, can be used to obtain users' private information for launching social engineering attacks. In addition, web side-channel attacks alone can also reveal private information, such as illnesses and medications of patients and the number of social network users' friends. The project is to design, implement and evaluate a novel defense architecture integrating atomic determinism, a brand-new concept of determinism tailored-made for web browsers, to provably prevent web side-channel attacks, thus protecting web users' security and privacy.

The key insight of atomic determinism is that a web browser can be considered as a composition of several atomic units, called reference frames (RFs), an abstract concept borrowed from physics. The atomic determinism of web browsers defines that each RF contains only one clock and at most one observer, e.g., a Turing-complete program controlled by the adversary. From the viewpoint of the observer, the clock in the RF ticks deterministically, i.e., being the same in every runtime; by contrast, from the viewpoint of an oracle, e.g., a user of the browser, the clock in the RF ticks normally without performance slowdown. The project adopts two tactics to incorporate atomic determinism into web browsers, i.e., designing a browser add-on and modifying a modern web browser. The former, which translates existing programs and overwrites existing function definitions, facilitates the general web users in short-term; the latter, which fundamentally changes the browser architecture, facilitates users with special needs and can be integrated into a mainstream browser in a longer term. The greatest impact of this project is novel, effective approaches, systems, and technologies to improving the security and privacy of browsers, benefiting web users from both the academia and the general public. The principal investigator (PI) also involves undergraduates, women, K-12 students and minorities in the project.

Continuation of Award #: 1812870