[M3devel] Heartbleed, initialization, and Modula-3

Rodney M. Bates rodney_bates at lcwb.coop
Fri Jun 6 16:28:37 CEST 2014

On 06/05/2014 03:06 AM, Antony Hosking wrote:
> I note that a heap-allocated string will be zeroed in the current implementation (AFAIR).
> Sent from my iPad

So we can probably claim today that Modula-3, as implemented, would have
prevented heartbleed from disclosing sensitive data.  The offending buffer
would almost surely been heap-allocated.

>> On Jun 5, 2014, at 12:39 AM, "Rodney M. Bates" <rodney_bates at lcwb.coop> wrote:
>> Olaf's recent mention of safe languages and Heartbleed prompted me to
>> look into the specifics of the bug, particularly to see what Modula-3
>> might have done to prevent it.
>> According to the descriptions I found, a recent protocol extension
>> (called "heartbeat") allows one machine (call it the client) to ask
>> another (call it the server) to echo a verbatim copy of an arbitrary
>> character string, I suppose to check whether the server is alive and
>> responding.
>> The request message contains two redundant string lengths, one part of
>> the string itself (in a way not described in the descriptions I saw,
>> but it doesn't matter) and one prepended at the beginning, so the
>> server can allocate a buffer prior to storing the string.  The two
>> were probably presumed to be equal, but nothing forces this.  How good
>> a protocol design this is could be debated.
>> The real bug is in the server-side implementation, which uses the
>> requested buffer size rather than the sent string length as the length
>> of the string to echo.  So an attacker can give an over-large buffer
>> size and a short string.  The string gets stored in the first few
>> bytes of the buffer, while the rest are uninitialized.  The attacker
>> gets back a lot of left-over bytes from whatever the buffer was used
>> for previously.  It would then have to figure out what it actually got
>> and how to exploit it, but the data is at least there.
>> Modula-3, as it is would likely not have prevented this.  The language
>> requires only that all newly allocated variables come into existence
>> with some bit pattern that is a legal value of the type.  For many
>> types, this would require a compiler-generated runtime initialization,
>> which would have overlaid the leftover sensitive data.  But for a type
>> whose value set covers all bit patterns of the machine-level
>> representation, the language rule is satisfied with no initialization.
>> Coded in Modula-3, the buffer would almost surely been typed as an
>> array of CHAR or array of some other discrete type whose range exactly
>> uses a byte, thus requiring no compiler-generated initialization and
>> leaving the sensitive data intact.
>> I have long been ambivalent about this language rule.  I see the
>> argument for it.  It is the minimum runtime penalty that ensures the
>> abstract type system of the language behaves as expected.  But it also
>> allows some things to happen that, although not type-safety bugs, are
>> nevertheless undefined behaviour, even if explainable in the abstract
>> data system of the language.
>> Defined initialization of everything would have prevented the
>> Heartbleed bug from compromising sensitive data.  It would also make
>> uninitialized (by explicit source code) bugs deterministic and
>> repeatable, which is a huge advantage.  The cost would be small
>> constant-time execution speed losses, greatly diluted by other things.
>> This would allow us to claim publically that modern Modula-3 would
>> have prevented the Heartbleed bug from compromising anything.
>> We could also implement this without stating it in the language, but I
>> think that might be something of the worst of both worlds, since one
>> could not fully rely on it's staying that way.
>> What does everyone think?
>> P.S.: It's pretty easy to define the values and pretty easy to
>> implement.
>> --
>> Rodney Bates
>> rodney.m.bates at acm.org

Rodney Bates
rodney.m.bates at acm.org

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