Algorithmic Assertions - Craig Gidney's Computer Science Blog

Protecting Control Flow with Nested Evals

27 Mar 2016

Javascript's eval function has a bad reputation, mostly (but not entirely) because of its tendency to create code injection attacks. In this post, I'll show a way eval can help defend against code-injection attacks.

(This post is not a recommendation for eval, and won't prepare you for the many pitfalls of executing untrusted javascript. If you're unfamiliar with injection attacks, or enjoy puzzles based on them, try out the game untrusted ('the continuing adventures of Dr. Eval').)

Injecting Control Flow

Injection attacks work in many ways, but a common method-of-action is hijacking the flow of code nested around the user-provided code.

For example, suppose you have a game and decide that users should be able to define some kind of custom flair to execute when they win. You write something like this, to be maximally flexible:

let gameCode = `
    ...
    if (isWinner) {
        ${userFlairCode};
    }
    ...
`;
...
eval(gameCode);

But then users start entering flair code like } ${code}; if (true) {. It affects the parse tree in a way you didn't expect, tampering with your intended control flow so that their flair runs unconditionally. Even when the user loses, they appear to win. Oops.

I grappled with this specific problem when writing the javascript widgets for the you-vs-bell-tests-vs-no-communication post. Users can enter custom coordination strategies, and the code started off looking something like this:

let simulationCodeForWebWorker = `
  ...
  for (let i = 0; i < RUN_COUNT; i++) {
     let move = undefined;
     ${userStrategyForAlice}
     moves.push(move);
  }
  ...
`;

Although there's really no cost to users beating the widgets by cheating (there's no leaderboard or anything like that), I was still interested in making it at least slightly difficult to cheat. And that meant preventing control flow tampering, among other things.

Nested Eval

The workaround I used to protect the control flow is ironic, but straightforward: run the code inside an inner eval. Instead of directly inserting the user's code into the text of the code-to-be-executed, have the code-to-be-executed pass the user's code as a string literal into an eval within the code-to-be-executed:

let simulationCodeForWebWorker = `
  ...
  for (let i = 0; i < RUN_COUNT; i++) {
     let move = undefined;
     eval(${JSON.stringify(userStrategyForAlice)}); // <--- an eval within the code to evaluate
     moves.push(move);
  }
  ...
`;

Now, if the user specifies code like } if (false) { in an attempt to keep the moves array empty, they'll instead cause a syntax error when eval("} if (false) {") is evaluated. They can't tamper with the parse tree because the only thing they control is the logical contents of a string literal.

Of course we still have to prevent the user-entered code from breaking out of the string literal. In the example, properly escaping the code into a string literal is delegated to JSON.stringify. I can't guarantee that JSON.stringify will work (e.g. what if a future version of javascript allowed templates in all strings?) but, given how tricky it can be to know which characters are safe and which aren't, I'd rather defer to a standard function than write my own.

(I also did other things to protect the widgets from user-entered code: running in a web worker, using a timeout, caching globals into locals, randomizing the names of variables, hiding scopes with (function() { ... })(), and so forth. Despite all that, you can of course still cheat by using injection attacks. Don't use eval around anything important. Just don't.)

Summary

When mixing user-defined code with your own code, inserting eval(${JSON.stringify(userCode)}) instead of just ${userCode} will prevent the user-defined code from hijacking the surrounding control flow.

It won't stop the user-defined code from tampering with global state, from hanging, from throwing exceptions, from leaking information, or from doing all the other awful things eval allows... but it'll stop the control flow tampering. ...Maybe.

« Wrapping Structure Around Batched Methods Gradually Copying a Quantum Brain »