Ben Laurie blathering

Handling Private Data with Capabilities

A possibility I’ve been musing about that Caja enables is to give gadgets capabilities to sensitive (for example, personal) data which are opaque to the gadgets but nevertheless render appropriately when shown to the user.

This gives rise to some interesting, perhaps non-obvious consequences. One is that a sorted list of these opaque capabilities would itself have to be opaque, otherwise the gadget might be able to deduce things from the order. That is, the capabilities held in the sorted list would have to be unlinkable to the original capabilities (I think that’s the minimum requirement). This is because sort order reveals data – say the capabilities represented age or sexual preference and the gadget knows, for some other reason, what that is for one member of the list. It would then be able to deduce information about people above or below that person in the list.

Interestingly, you could allow the gadget to do arbitrary processing on the contents of the opaque capabilities, so long as it gave you (for example) a piece of code that could be confined only to do processing and no communication. Modulo wall-banging, Caja could make that happen. Although it might initially sound a bit pointless, this would allow the gadget to produce output that could be displayed to the user, despite the gadget itself not being allowed to know that output.

Note that because of covert channels, it should not be thought that this prevents the leakage of sensitive data – to do that, you would have to forbid any processing by the gadget of the secret data. But what this does do is prevent inadvertent leakage of data by (relatively) benign gadgets, whilst allowing them a great deal of flexibility in what they do with that data from the user’s point of view.

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