Browser visibility-security and invisibility-insecurity

Formal languages have a knack of giving some output, and then later doing something completely different. For example, take the “Halting Problem“, but this is probably too theoretical to be of any relevance… so read on for something a bit more practical. We are going to go down the rabbit hole, to the ‘in-between’ space…

My interest was first piqued when I encountered the following annoyance – some websites would use transparent layers to prevent you from:

  1. Marking and copying text.
  2. Left-clicking on anything, including:
    1. images, to save them,
    2. just the website, to view its source -
  3. and so on and so forth…

Now I bet most intelligent readers would know how to pass these minor hurdles – but mostly just taking the steps is usually deterrent enough to prevent the next lazy guy from doing anything. So I was thinking, why not write a browser – or just a Firefox plugin, that will allow us to view just the top-level of any website?

This should be easy enough to do, but if it bothered enough sites (which it probably won’t), and they fought back, there would be a pretty standard escalation war. However, since the issue is not that major, I suspect it wouldn’t matter much.

Now comes the more interesting part. Unlike preventing someone from copying text, html (plus any ‘sub-languages’ it may use) may be used to display one thing, and to be read like a different thing altogether. The most common example is with spam – displaying image spam instead of text. When that was countered by spam filters, animated gif files were used. Now you have it – your escalation war, par excellence. This property of html was also used by honeypots to filter comment-spam, as described in securiteam. In this the securiteam blog post by Aviram, the beginning of another escalation war is described. There are many more examples of this property of html.

All of these examples come from html’s basic ability to specify what do display, and being able to seem to display completely different things. There are actually two parsers at work here – one is the ‘filter’ – its goal is to filter out some ‘bad’ html, and the other is a bit more complicated – it is the person reading the browser’s output (it may be considered to be the ‘browser + person’ parser) . These two parsers operate on completely different levels of html. Now, I would like to point out that having to parsers reading the same language is a common insecurity pattern. HTML has a huge space between what is expressible, and what is visible. In that space – danger lies.

As another, simpler example, consider phishing sites. These are common enough nowadays. How does your browser decide if the site you are looking at is actually a phishing site? Among other things – reading the code behind the site. However, this code can point to something completely different then what is being displayed. In this ‘invisible’ space – any misleading code can live. In that way, the spammer may pretend to be a legitimate site for the filter, but your run-of-the-mill phishing site for the human viewer. This misleading code in the ‘invisible space’ may be used to good – like a honeypot against some comment-spammer, or it may be used for different purposes – by the spammer himself.

Now comes the interesting part. The “what to do part”. For now let me just describe it theoretically, and later work on its practicality. I suggest using a ‘visibility browser’. This browser will use some popular browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera, etc.. ) as its lower level. This lower level browser will render the website to some buffer, instead of the screen. Now, our ‘visibility browser’ will OCR all of the visible rendered data, and restructure it as valid HTML. This ‘purified’ html may now be used to filter any ‘bad’ sites – whichever criterion you would like to use for ‘bad’.

I know, I know, this is not practical, it is computationally intensive etc etc… However, it does present a method to close down that nagging ‘space’, this place between readability and visibility, where bad code lies. I also know that the ‘visible browser’ itself may be targeted, and probably quite easily. Those attacks will have to rely on implementation faults of the software, or some other flaw, as yet un-thought-of. We all know there will always be bugs. But it seems to me that the ‘visibility browser’ does close, or at least cover for a time, one nagging design flaw.

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