An update on Memory Safety in Chrome

Security is a cat-and-mouse game. As attackers innovate, browsers always have to mount new defenses to stay ahead, and Chrome has invested in ever-stronger multi-process architecture built on sandboxing and site isolation. Combined with fuzzing, these are still our primary lines of defense, but they are reaching their limits, and we can no longer solely rely on this strategy to defeat in-the-wild attacks.

Last year, we showed that more than 70% of our severe security bugs are memory safety problems. That is, mistakes with pointers in the C or C++ languages which cause memory to be misinterpreted.

This sounds like a problem! And, certainly, memory safety is an issue which needs to be taken seriously by the global software engineering community. Yet it’s also an opportunity because many bugs have the same sorts of root-causes, meaning we may be able to squash a high proportion of our bugs in one step.

Chrome has been exploring three broad avenues to seize this opportunity:

  1. Make C++ safer through compile-time checks that pointers are correct.
  2. Make C++ safer through runtime checks that pointers are correct.
  3. Investigating use of a memory safe language for parts of our codebase.

“Compile-time checks” mean that safety is guaranteed during the Chrome build process, before Chrome even gets to your device. “Runtime” means we do checks whilst Chrome is running on your device.

Runtime checks have a performance cost. Checking the correctness of a pointer is an infinitesimal cost in memory and CPU time. But with millions of pointers, it adds up. And since Chrome performance is important to billions of users, many of whom are using low-power mobile devices without much memory, an increase in these checks would result in a slower web.

Ideally we’d choose option 1 - make C++ safer, at compile time. Unfortunately, the language just isn’t designed that way. You can learn more about the investigation we've done in this area in Borrowing Trouble: The Difficulties Of A C++ Borrow-Checker that we're also publishing today.

So, we’re mostly left with options 2 and 3 - make C++ safer (but slower!) or start to use a different language. Chrome Security is experimenting with both of these approaches.

You’ll see major investments in C++ safety solutions - such as MiraclePtr and ABSL/STL hardened modes. In each case, we hope to eliminate a sizable fraction of our exploitable security bugs, but we also expect some performance penalty. For example, MiraclePtr prevents use-after-free bugs by quarantining memory that may still be referenced. On many mobile devices, memory is very precious and it’s hard to spare some for a quarantine. Nevertheless, MiraclePtr stands a chance of eliminating over 50% of the use-after-free bugs in the browser process - an enormous win for Chrome security, right now.

In parallel, we’ll be exploring whether we can use a memory safe language for parts of Chrome in the future. The leading contender is Rust, invented by our friends at Mozilla. This is (largely) compile-time safe; that is, the Rust compiler spots mistakes with pointers before the code even gets to your device, and thus there’s no performance penalty. Yet there are open questions about whether we can make C++ and Rust work well enough together. Even if we started writing new large components in Rust tomorrow, we’d be unlikely to eliminate a significant proportion of security vulnerabilities for many years. And can we make the language boundary clean enough that we can write parts of existing components in Rust? We don’t know yet. We’ve started to land limited, non-user-facing Rust experiments in the Chromium source code tree, but we’re not yet using it in production versions of Chrome - we remain in an experimental phase.

That’s why we’re pursuing both strategies in parallel. Watch this space for updates on our adventures in making C++ safer, and efforts to experiment with a new language in Chrome.