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Security and the Class Loader Architecture
Class Loaders in Java's Security Model
by Bill Venners
First Published in JavaWorld, August 1997

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Guarding restricted packages
Java allows classes in the same package to grant each other special access privileges that aren't granted to classes outside the package. So, if your class loader receives a request to load a class that by its name brazenly declares itself to be part of the Java API (for example, a class named java.lang.Virus), your class loader should proceed cautiously. If loaded, such a class could gain special access to the trusted classes of java.lang and could possibly use that special access for devious purposes.

Consequently, you would normally write a class loader so that it simply refuses to load any class that claims to be part of the Java API (or any other trusted runtime library) but that doesn't exist in the local trusted repository. In other words, after your class loader passes a request to the primordial class loader, and the primordial class loader indicates it can't load the class, your class loader should check to make sure the class doesn't declare itself to be a member of a trusted package. If it does, your class loader, instead of trying to download the class across the network, should throw a security exception.

Guarding forbidden packages
In addition, you may have installed some packages in the trusted repository that contain classes you want your application to be able to load through the primordial class loader, but that you don't want to be accessible to classes loaded through your class loader. For example, assume you have created a package named absolutepower and installed it on the local repository accessible by the primordial class loader. Assume also that you don't want classes loaded by your class loader to be able to load any class from the absolutepower package. In this case, you would write your class loader such that the very first thing it does is to make sure the requested class doesn't declare itself as a member of the absolutepower package. If such a class is requested, your class loader, rather than passing the class name to the primordial class loader, should throw a security exception.

The only way a class loader can know whether or not a class is from a restricted package, such as java.lang, or a forbidden package, such as absolutepower, is by the name of the class. Thus, a class loader must be given a list of the names of restricted and forbidden packages. Because the name of class java.lang.Virus indicates it is from the java.lang package, and java.lang is on the list of restricted packages, your class loader should throw a security exception if the primordial class loader can't load it. Likewise, because the name of class absolutepower.FancyClassLoader indicates it is part of the absolutepower package, and the absolutepower package is on the list of forbidden packages, your class loader should throw a security exception.

A security-minded class loader
A common way to write a security-minded class loader is to use the following four steps:

  1. If packages exist that this class loader is not allowed to load from, the class loader checks whether the requested class is in one of those forbidden packages mentioned above. If so, it throws a security exception. If not, it continues on to step two.

  2. The class loader passes the request to the primordial class loader. If the primordial class loader successfully returns the class, the class loader returns that same class. Otherwise it continues on to step three.

  3. If trusted packages exist that this class loader is not allowed to add classes to, the class loader checks whether the requested class is in one of those restricted packages. If so, it throws a security exception. If not, it continues on to step four.

  4. Finally, the class loader attempts to load the class in the custom way, such as by downloading it across a network. If successful, it returns the class. If unsuccessful, it throws a "no class definition found" error.

By performing steps one and three as outlined above, the class loader guards the borders of the trusted packages. With step one, it prevents a class from a forbidden package to be loaded at all. With step three, it doesn't allow an untrusted class to insert itself into a trusted package.

Conclusion
The class loader architecture contributes to the JVM's security model in two ways:

  1. by separating code into multiple name-spaces and placing a "shield" between code in different name-spaces
  2. by guarding the borders of trusted class libraries, such as the Java API

Both of these capabilities of Java's class loader architecture must be used properly by programmers so as to reap the security benefit they offer. To take advantage of the name-space shield, code from different sources should be loaded through different class loader objects. To take advantage of trusted package border guarding, class loaders must be written so they check the names of requested classes against a list of restricted and forbidden packages.

For a walk through of the process of writing a class loader, including sample code, see Chuck McManis's JavaWorld article, "The basics of Java class loaders."

Next month
In next month's article, I'll continue the discussion of the JVM's security model by describing the class verifier.

Resources

About the author
Bill Venners has been writing software professionally for 12 years. Based in Silicon Valley, he provides software consulting and training services under the name Artima Software Company. Over the years he has developed software for the consumer electronics, education, semiconductor, and life insurance industries. He has programmed in many languages on many platforms: assembly language on various microprocessors, C on Unix, C++ on Windows, Java on the Web. He is author of the book: Inside the Java Virtual Machine, published by McGraw-Hill. Reach Bill at bv@artima.com.

This article was first published under the name Security and the Class Loader Architecture in JavaWorld, a division of Web Publishing, Inc., August 1997.

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