Ever since the Intel processor vulnerabilities got exposed, Google has been working hard to to protect the Chrome browser against security vulnerabilities. The company now achieved a final solution, by implementing a function called Site Isolation.
— Google — Speculative execution side-channel attacks like Spectre are a newly discovered security risk for web browsers. A website could use such attacks to steal data or login information from other websites that are open in the browser. To better mitigate these attacks, we’re excited to announce that Chrome 67 has enabled a security feature called Site Isolation on Windows, Mac, Linux, and Chrome OS. Site Isolation has been optionally available as an experimental enterprise policy since Chrome 63, but many known issues have been resolved since then, making it practical to enable by default for all desktop Chrome users.
This launch is one phase of our overall Site Isolation project. Stay tuned for additional security updates that will mitigate attacks beyond Spectre (e.g., attacks from fully compromised renderer processes).
What is Spectre?
In January, Google Project Zero disclosed a set of speculative execution side-channel attacks that became publicly known as Spectre and Meltdown. An additional variant of Spectre was disclosed in May. These attacks use the speculative execution features of most CPUs to access parts of memory that should be off-limits to a piece of code, and then use timing attacks to discover the values stored in that memory. Effectively, this means that untrustworthy code may be able to read any memory in its process’s address space.
What is Site Isolation?
Site Isolation is a large change to Chrome’s architecture that limits each renderer process to documents from a single site. As a result, Chrome can rely on the operating system to prevent attacks between processes, and thus, between sites. Note that Chrome uses a specific definition of “site” that includes just the scheme and registered domain. Thus, https://google.co.uk would be a site, and subdomains like https://maps.google.co.uk would stay in the same process.
Chrome has always had a multi-process architecture where different tabs could use different renderer processes. A given tab could even switch processes when navigating to a new site in some cases. However, it was still possible for an attacker’s page to share a process with a victim’s page. For example, cross-site iframes and cross-site pop-ups typically stayed in the same process as the page that created them. This would allow a successful Spectre attack to read data (e.g., cookies, passwords, etc.) belonging to other frames or pop-ups in its process.
When Site Isolation is enabled, each renderer process contains documents from at most one site. This means all navigations to cross-site documents cause a tab to switch processes. It also means all cross-site iframes are put into a different process than their parent frame, using “out-of-process iframes.” Splitting a single page across multiple processes is a major change to how Chrome works, and the Chrome Security team has been pursuing this for several years, independently of Spectre. The first uses of out-of-process iframes shipped last year to improve the Chrome extension security model.
In Chrome 67, Site Isolation has been enabled for 99% of users on Windows, Mac, Linux, and Chrome OS. (Given the large scope of this change, we are keeping a 1% holdback for now to monitor and improve performance.) This means that even if a Spectre attack were to occur in a malicious web page, data from other websites would generally not be loaded into the same process, and so there would be much less data available to the attacker. This significantly reduces the threat posed by Spectre.