Institute for Software Research
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University


A Theory and Tools for Applying Sandboxes Effectively

Michael Maass

March 2016

Ph.D. Thesis (SE)


Keywords: Sandboxing, software protection, supply chain security, Java sandbox, software engineering

It is more expensive and time consuming to build modern software without extensive supply chains. Supply chains decrease these development risks, but typically at the cost of increased security risk. In particular, it is often difficult to understand or verify what a software component delivered by a third party does or could do. Such a component could contain unwanted behaviors, vulnerabilities, or malicious code, many of which become incorporated in applications utilizing the component.

Sandboxes provide relief by encapsulating a component and imposing a security policy on it. This limits the operations the component can perform without as much need to trust or verify the component. Instead, a component user must trust or verify the relatively simple sandbox. Given this appealing prospect, researchers have spent the last few decades developing new sandboxing techniques and sandboxes. However, while sandboxes have been adopted in practice, they are not as pervasive as they could be. Why are sandboxes not achieving ubiquity at the same rate as extensive supply chains? This thesis advances our understanding of and overcomes some barriers to sandbox adoption.

We systematically analyze ten years (2004 { 2014) of sandboxing research from top-tier security and systems conferences. We uncover two barriers: (1) sandboxes are often validated using relatively subjective techniques and (2) usability for sandbox deployers is often ignored by the studied community.

We then focus on the Java sandbox to empirically study its use within the open source community. We find features in the sandbox that benign applications do not use, which have promoted a thriving exploit landscape. We develop run time monitors for the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) to turn off these features, stopping all known sandbox escaping JVM exploits without breaking benign applications. Furthermore, we find that the sandbox contains a high degree of complexity benign applications need that hampers sandbox use.

When studying the sandbox's use, we did not find a single application that successfully deployed the sandbox for security purposes, which motivated us to overcome benignly-used complexity via tooling. We develop and evaluate a series of tools to automate the most complex tasks, which currently require error-prone manual effort. Our tools help users derive, express, and refine a security policy and impose it on targeted Java application JARs and classes. This tooling is evaluated through case studies with industrial collaborators where we sandbox components that were previously difficult to sandbox securely.

Finally, we observe that design and implementation complexity causes sandbox developers to accidentally create vulnerable sandboxes. Thus, we develop and evaluate a sandboxing technique that leverages existing cloud computing environments to execute untrusted computations. Malicious outcomes produced by the computations are contained by ephemeral virtual machines. We describe a field trial using this technique with Adobe Reader and compare the new sandbox to existing sandboxes using a qualitative framework we developed.

166 pages

Thesis Committee:
Jonathan Aldrich (Co-Chair)
William L. Scherlis (Co-Chair)
Lujo Bauer
Bruno Amizic (The Boeing Company)

William L Scherlis, Director, Institute for Software Research
Andrew W. Moore, Dean, School of Computer Science

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