4.7. Human Language (Locale) Selection

As more people have computers and the Internet available to them, there has been increasing pressure for programs to support multiple human languages and cultures. This combination of language and other cultural factors is usually called a ``locale''. The process of modifying a program so it can support multiple locales is called ``internationalization'' (i18n), and the process of providing the information for a particular locale to a program is called ``localization'' (l10n).

Overall, internationalization is a good thing, but this process provides another opportunity for a security exploit. Since a potentially untrusted user provides information on the desired locale, locale selection becomes another input that, if not properly protected, can be exploited.

4.7.1. How Locales are Selected

In locally-run programs (including setuid/setgid programs), locale information is provided by an environment variable. Thus, like all other environment variables, these values must be extracted and checked against valid patterns before use.

For web applications, this information can be obtained from the web browser (via the Accept-Language request header). However, since not all web browsers properly pass this information (and not all users configure their browsers properly), this is used less often than you might think. Often, the language requested in a web browser is simply passed in as a form value. Again, these values must be checked for validity before use, as with any other form value.

In either case, locale information is really just a special case of input discussed in the previous sections. However, because this input is so rarely considered, I'm discussing it separately. In particular, when combined with format strings (discussed later), user-controlled strings can permit attackers to force other programs to run arbitrary instructions, corrupt data, and do other unfortunate actions.

4.7.2. Locale Support Mechanisms

There are two major library interfaces for supporting locale-selected messages on Unix-like systems, one called ``catgets'' and the other called ``gettext''. In the catgets approach, every string is assigned a unique number, which is used as an index into a table of messages. In contrast, in the gettext approach, a string (usually in English) is used to look up a table that translates the original string. catgets(3) is an accepted standard (via the X/Open Portability Guide, Volume 3 and Single Unix Specification), so it's possible your program uses it. The ``gettext'' interface is not an official standard, (though it was originally a UniForum proposal), but I believe it's the more widely used interface (it's used by Sun and essentially all GNU programs).

In theory, catgets should be slightly faster, but this is at best marginal on today's machines, and the bookkeeping effort to keep unique identifiers valid in catgets() makes the gettext() interface much easier to use. I'd suggest using gettext(), just because it's easier to use. However, don't take my word for it; see GNU's documentation on gettext (info:gettext#catgets) for a longer and more descriptive comparison.

The catgets(3) call (and its associated catopen(3) call) in particular is vulnerable to security problems, because the environment variable NLSPATH can be used to control the filenames used to acquire internationalized messages. The GNU C library ignores NLSPATH for setuid/setgid programs, which helps, but that doesn't protect programs running on other implementations, nor other programs (like CGI scripts) which don't ``appear'' to require such protection.

The widely-used ``gettext'' interface is at least not vulnerable to a malicious NLSPATH setting to my knowledge. However, it appears likely to me that malicious settings of LC_ALL or LC_MESSAGES could cause problems. Also, if you use gettext's bindtextdomain() routine in its file cat-compat.c, that does depend on NLSPATH.

4.7.3. Legal Values

For the moment, if you must permit untrusted users to set information on their desired locales, make sure the provided internationalization information meets a narrow filter that only permits legitimate locale names. For user programs (especially setuid/setgid programs), these values will come in via NLSPATH, LANGUAGE, LANG, the old LINGUAS, LC_ALL, and the other LC_* values (especially LC_MESSAGES, but also including LC_COLLATE, LC_CTYPE, LC_MONETARY, LC_NUMERIC, and LC_TIME). For web applications, this user-requested set of language information would be done via the Accept-Language request header or a form value (the application should indicate the actual language setting of the data being returned via the Content-Language heading). You can check this value as part of your environment variable filtering if your users can set your environment variables (i.e., setuid/setgid programs) or as part of your input filtering (e.g., for CGI scripts). The GNU C library "glibc" doesn't accept some values of LANG for setuid/setgid programs (in particular anything with "/"), but errors have been found in that filtering (e.g., Red Hat released an update to fix this error in glibc on September 1, 2000). This kind of filtering isn't required by any standard, so you're safer doing this filtering yourself. I have not found any guidance on filtering language settings, so here are my suggestions based on my own research into the issue.

First, a few words about the legal values of these settings. Language settings are generally set using the standard tags defined in IETF RFC 1766 (which uses two-letter country codes as its basic tag, followed by an optional subtag separated by a dash; I've found that environment variable settings use the underscore instead). However, some find this insufficiently flexible, so three-letter country codes may soon be used as well. Also, there are two major not-quite compatible extended formats, the X/Open Format and the CEN Format (European Community Standard); you'd like to permit both. Typical values include ``C'' (the C locale), ``EN'' (English''), and ``FR_fr'' (French using the territory of France's conventions). Also, so many people use nonstandard names that programs have had to develop ``alias'' systems to cope with them (for GNU gettext, see /usr/share/locale/locale.aliases, and for X11, see /usr/lib/X11/locale/locale.aliases); they should usually be permitted as well. Libraries like gettext() have to accept all these variants and find an appropriate value, where possible. One source of further information is FSF [1999]. However, a filter should not permit characters that aren't needed, in particular ``/'' (which might permit escaping out of the trusted directories) and ``..'' (which might permit going up one directory). Other dangerous characters in NLSPATH include ``%'' (which indicates substitution) and ``:'' (which is the directory separator); the documentation I have for other machines suggests that some implementations may use them for other values, so it's safest to prohibit them.

4.7.4. Bottom Line

In short, I suggest simply erasing or re-setting the NLSPATH, unless you have a trusted user supplying the value. For the Accept-Language heading in HTTP (if you use it), form values specifying the locale, and the environment variables LANGUAGE, LANG, the old LINGUAS, LC_ALL, and the other LC_* values listed above, filter the locales from untrusted users to permit null (empty) values or to only permit values that match in total this regular expression:

I haven't found any legitimate locale which doesn't match this pattern, but this pattern does appear to protect against locale attacks. Of course, there's no guarantee that there are messages available in the requested locale, but in such a case these routines will fall back to the default messages (usually in English), which at least is not a security problem.

Of course, languages cannot be supported without a standard way to represent their written symbols, which brings us to the issue of character encoding.