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10.6. Java

If you're developing secure programs using Java, frankly your first step (after learning Java) is to read the two primary texts for Java security, namely Gong [1999] and McGraw [1999] (for the latter, look particularly at section 7.1). You should also look at Sun's posted security code guidelines at, and there's a nice article by Sahu et al [2002] A set of slides describing Java's security model are freely available at You can also see McGraw [1998].

Obviously, a great deal depends on the kind of application you're developing. Java code intended for use on the client side has a completely different environment (and trust model) than code on a server side. The general principles apply, of course; for example, you must check and filter any input from an untrusted source. However, in Java there are some ``hidden'' inputs or potential inputs that you need to be wary of, as discussed below. Johnathan Nightingale [2000] made an interesting statement summarizing many of the issues in Java programming:

... the big thing with Java programming is minding your inheritances. If you inherit methods from parents, interfaces, or parents' interfaces, you risk opening doors to your code.

The following are a few key guidelines, based on Gong [1999], McGraw [1999], Sun's guidance, and my own experience:

  1. Do not use public fields or variables; declare them as private and provide accessors to them so you can limit their accessibility.

  2. Make methods private unless there is a good reason to do otherwise (and if you do otherwise, document why). These non-private methods must protect themselves, because they may receive tainted data (unless you've somehow arranged to protect them).

  3. The JVM may not actually enforce the accessibility modifiers (e.g., ``private'') at run-time in an application (as opposed to an applet). My thanks to John Steven (Cigital Inc.), who pointed this out on the ``Secure Programming'' mailing list on November 7, 2000. The issue is that it all depends on what class loader the class requesting the access was loaded with. If the class was loaded with a trusted class loader (including the null/ primordial class loader), the access check returns "TRUE" (allowing access). For example, this works (at least with Sun's 1.2.2 VM ; it might not work with other implementations):

    1. write a victim class (V) with a public field, compile it.

    2. write an 'attack' class (A) that accesses that field, compile it

    3. change V's public field to private, recompile

    4. run A - it'll access V's (now private) field.

    However, the situation is different with applets. If you convert A to an applet and run it as an applet (e.g., with appletviewer or browser), its class loader is no longer a trusted (or null) class loader. Thus, the code will throw java.lang.IllegalAccessError, with the message that you're trying to access a field V.secret from class A.

  4. Avoid using static field variables. Such variables are attached to the class (not class instances), and classes can be located by any other class. As a result, static field variables can be found by any other class, making them much more difficult to secure.

  5. Never return a mutable object to potentially malicious code (since the code may decide to change it). Note that arrays are mutable (even if the array contents aren't), so don't return a reference to an internal array with sensitive data.

  6. Never store user given mutable objects (including arrays of objects) directly. Otherwise, the user could hand the object to the secure code, let the secure code ``check'' the object, and change the data while the secure code was trying to use the data. Clone arrays before saving them internally, and be careful here (e.g., beware of user-written cloning routines).

  7. Don't depend on initialization. There are several ways to allocate uninitialized objects.

  8. Make everything final, unless there's a good reason not to. If a class or method is non-final, an attacker could try to extend it in a dangerous and unforeseen way. Note that this causes a loss of extensibility, in exchange for security.

  9. Don't depend on package scope for security. A few classes, such as java.lang, are closed by default, and some Java Virtual Machines (JVMs) let you close off other packages. Otherwise, Java classes are not closed. Thus, an attacker could introduce a new class inside your package, and use this new class to access the things you thought you were protecting.

  10. Don't use inner classes. When inner classes are translated into byte codes, the inner class is translated into a class accesible to any class in the package. Even worse, the enclosing class's private fields silently become non-private to permit access by the inner class!

  11. Minimize privileges. Where possible, don't require any special permissions at all. McGraw goes further and recommends not signing any code; I say go ahead and sign the code (so users can decide to ``run only signed code by this list of senders''), but try to write the program so that it needs nothing more than the sandbox set of privileges. If you must have more privileges, audit that code especially hard.

  12. If you must sign your code, put it all in one archive file. Here it's best to quote McGraw [1999]:

    The goal of this rule is to prevent an attacker from carrying out a mix-and-match attack in which the attacker constructs a new applet or library that links some of your signed classes together with malicious classes, or links together signed classes that you never meant to be used together. By signing a group of classes together, you make this attack more difficult. Existing code-signing systems do an inadequate job of preventing mix-and-match attacks, so this rule cannot prevent such attacks completely. But using a single archive can't hurt.

  13. Make your classes uncloneable. Java's object-cloning mechanism allows an attacker to instantiate a class without running any of its constructors. To make your class uncloneable, just define the following method in each of your classes:

    public final Object clone() throws java.lang.CloneNotSupportedException {
       throw new java.lang.CloneNotSupportedException();

    If you really need to make your class cloneable, then there are some protective measures you can take to prevent attackers from redefining your clone method. If you're defining your own clone method, just make it final. If you're not, you can at least prevent the clone method from being maliciously overridden by adding the following:

    public final void clone() throws java.lang.CloneNotSupportedException {
  14. Make your classes unserializeable. Serialization allows attackers to view the internal state of your objects, even private portions. To prevent this, add this method to your classes:

    private final void writeObject(ObjectOutputStream out)
      throws {
         throw new"Object cannot be serialized");

    Even in cases where serialization is okay, be sure to use the transient keyword for the fields that contain direct handles to system resources and that contain information relative to an address space. Otherwise, deserializing the class may permit improper access. You may also want to identify sensitive information as transient.

    If you define your own serializing method for a class, it should not pass an internal array to any DataInput/DataOuput method that takes an array. The rationale: All DataInput/DataOutput methods can be overridden. If a Serializable class passes a private array directly to a DataOutput(write(byte [] b)) method, then an attacker could subclass ObjectOutputStream and override the write(byte [] b) method to enable him to access and modify the private array. Note that the default serialization does not expose private byte array fields to DataInput/DataOutput byte array methods.

  15. Make your classes undeserializeable. Even if your class is not serializeable, it may still be deserializeable. An attacker can create a sequence of bytes that happens to deserialize to an instance of your class with values of the attacker's choosing. In other words, deserialization is a kind of public constructor, allowing an attacker to choose the object's state - clearly a dangerous operation! To prevent this, add this method to your classes:

    private final void readObject(ObjectInputStream in)
      throws {
        throw new"Class cannot be deserialized");
  16. Don't compare classes by name. After all, attackers can define classes with identical names, and if you're not careful you can cause confusion by granting these classes undesirable privileges. Thus, here's an example of the wrong way to determine if an object has a given class:

      if (obj.getClass().getName().equals("Foo")) {

    If you need to determine if two objects have exactly the same class, instead use getClass() on both sides and compare using the == operator, Thus, you should use this form:

      if (a.getClass() == b.getClass()) {
    If you truly need to determine if an object has a given classname, you need to be pedantic and be sure to use the current namespace (of the current class's ClassLoader). Thus, you'll need to use this format:
      if (obj.getClass() == this.getClassLoader().loadClass("Foo")) {

    This guideline is from McGraw and Felten, and it's a good guideline. I'll add that, where possible, it's often a good idea to avoid comparing class values anyway. It's often better to try to design class methods and interfaces so you don't need to do this at all. However, this isn't always practical, so it's important to know these tricks.

  17. Don't store secrets (cryptographic keys, passwords, or algorithm) in the code or data. Hostile JVMs can quickly view this data. Code obfuscation doesn't really hide the code from serious attackers.