Rust-proofing the internet with ISRG's Prossimo

There are efforts afoot to rewrite many fundamental internet programs in Rust to make them safer to use.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

You know the non-profit Internet Security Research Group (ISRG) for its Let's Encrypt certificate authority, the most popular way of securing websites with TLS certificates. The group wants to do more. Its newest project, Prossimo, seeks to make many basic internet programs and protocols memory-safe by rewriting them in Rust.

Rust, like some other memory-safe programming languages such as Go and Java, prevents programmers from introducing some kinds of memory bugs. All too often memory safety bugs go hand-in-hand with security issues. Unfortunately, much of the internet's fundamental software is written in C, which is anything but memory safe. 

Of course, you can write memory-safe programs in C or C++, but it's difficult. Conversely, you can create memory bugs in Rust if you try hard enough, but generally speaking Rust and Go are much safer than C and C++.

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There are many kinds of memory safety bugs. One common type is out-of-bounds reads and writes. In these, if you wrote code to track a to-do list with 10 items in C without memory protection measures, users could try to read and write for an 11th item. Instead of an error message, you'd read or write to memory that belonged to another program. In a memory-safe language, you'd get a compile error or crash at run time. A crash is bad news too, but it's better than giving a hacker a free pass into some other's program memory. 

Using that same example, what happens if you delete the to-do list and then ask for the list's first item? A badly written program in a non-memory-safe language will try to fetch from the old memory location in what's called a use-after-free error. This trick is used all the time to steal data and wreak havoc on a poorly secured program. Again, with Rust or Go, you must go far out of way to introduce such a blunder. 

As ISRG's executive director, Josh Aas, explained in a speech at the Linux Foundation Membership Summit

We've only started talking about security seriously recently. The problem is mainly C and C++ code. That's where these vulnerabilities are coming from. New memory safety vulnerabilities come up in widely used software every day. I think it's fair to say that this is out of control. 90% of vulnerabilities in Android; 70% from Microsoft and 80% of zero-day vulnerabilities come from old language memory-based. There are real costs to this stuff every day people get hurt.

Why are they doing this now? Because, Aas explained, "We didn't have great system languages to replace C. Now, we have that option."

So it is that under the Prossimo umbrella, ISRG is sponsoring developers to create memory-safe versions of internet programs. So far this includes a memory-safe TLS library, Hyper, and module, mod_tls, for the Apache webserver; a memory-safe curl data transfer utility; and memory-safe Rustls, a safer OpenSSL alternative.

Next up, Prossimo wants to give Network Time Protocol (NTP) the memory-safe treatment. For now, though, this NTP project lacks funding

Of course, replacing critical C-based programs throughout the internet is a gigantic and complex task. But it's a job that must be done as we grow ever more dependent on the internet for our personal lives, business work, and indeed the entire global economy. 

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