What if it were possible to use content-addressable caching in browsers instead of URL-based caching? The increased cache hits would be highly beneficial, especially for sites depending on 3rd party libraries via a CDN. It turns out this is possible. The subresource integrity specification gives us all we need. But it turns out it's not that simple.
None of the ideas I'm describing here are new, and none of them are concieved by me. I just happened to get this idea, like many others, and tried to get the standards bodies to implement it. This lead to a lot of historical digging because much of the knowledge about this is buried in mailing lists, blog posts that only exist in historical web archives and spec maintainers' heads. I'm writing this post in the hope that next time someone gets this great idea, they won't have to do the same work I just did.
Addressing an asset based on its content rather than its location is not a new thing. Content-addressable storage has been around for a long time and is beneficial in situations where the content is known not to change. Instead of a location to reference the content, you use a cryptographic hash of the content, which uniquely identifies it.
This technique should not be new to modern web developers, as we are already partially buying into immutable files with our far-future-expires caching of files that have a hash of their content as part of their file name. A great method for both getting long time caching and full control over exactly when to use updated assets, because they change identity. You have probably also used content-addressable systems with git, bittorrent or bitcoin.
But even though parts of content-addressability have been adopted in web development file naming regimes, we are not reaping the full benefits of it in regards to caching, since browser caches are based on URLs instead of content identity.
This is where a new W3C specification that most people haven't heard of comes in.
The subresource integrity specification describes a way for browsers to verify that an asset they have downloaded is indeed the asset that was expected. The developer declaring a cryptographic hash of the expected content of the downloaded asset. When the browser has fetched the asset it compares the declared cryptographic hash to that of the assets content. If there is a mismatch between the two hashes the browser will refuse to parse, evaluate and cache the asset.
Despite the choir of people that see no value in this on Reddit and hacker news, it's actually a really useful technique to secure your use of 3rd party dependencies or even your own assets. SSL will secure your transport, but doesn't guarantee that the asset has not been compromised on the originating server. There are lots of situations where the static assets you depend on are hosted on a server outside of your control, like a CDN, or even just on a different machine than your main web server.
So in order to gain this extra security you use subresource integrity. It's tedious declaring these hashes, but you can use tooling to help you do it.
The clever reader will now have noticed that content-addressability and subresource integrity have one thing in common; The cryptographic hash that uniquely identifies the content. So this was the idea I had:
Content-addressable Browser Cache
If a cryptographic hash uniquely identifies the content of an asset and subresource integrity hashes are declared by the developer, why not use these hashes as indexes for caching the asset instead of using the URL?
The benefits of doing this would be that you could leverage the cache across domains. Say you use jQuery 2.2.1 from a CDN on your site. If a visitor visits your site and doesn't have jQuery 2.2.1 on that URL in the browser cache it's a cache miss and a download. But what if the visitor had jQuery 2.2.1 from a different URL in the cache? The hashes of these two jQuery assets are identical. So if your site and the other site your visitor got jQuery 2.2.1 from both had declared an integrity hash, this would mean a cache hit because the identity hash is the same.
Awesome idea. I am by no means the first person to have it. The earliest mentions I could find about this was Douglas Crockford describing it in 2008 on a now dead URL but summarized by Mark Seaborn in his discussion of shared caching by hash. Obviously, many people had thought about this before me. So why hasn't it been implemented?
I got some hints on the whatwg IRC channel on where to read up on discussions about the idea. These are the reasons they had not to implement it:
A timing attack is a way of extrapolating knowledge about some otherwise non-accessible piece of data by timing the duration of an operation relating to it. In the case of content-addressable browser cache the piece of information that is otherwise hidden is the user's browser history and whether the user is logged in to certain services. The method to obtain this information is to time the duration of a HTTP fetch of a uniquely identified asset that only exists on the service an attacker is out to gain information about. If the fetch returns immediately it is very likely that it was because of a cache hit. If it takes a few hundred milliseconds or returns an error it's likely that the user hasn't used the probed service recently.
Leaking this sort of information is considered a security vulnerability. Similar vulnerabilities, like checking if a link has been visited with
Element.match(':visited'), have been addressed to avoid enabling potential evil third parties to involuntarily track users.
The client side version of this timing attack using a
fetch-operation is not much different than the old-school
<script src="https://interestingservice/asset.js" onload="trackTime()"></script>.
However, if the attacker also controlled the server the user is visiting, which is likely when the attacker can run an attack script, a timing attack is not even needed. The attacker could include the relevant 3rd party assets with the correct subresource integrity, but have the URL be from the local server. If the visitor requests the page, but not the 3rd party asset, you can conclude from the server logs that the user has a history on the 3rd party page.
Cache poisoning is the act of injecting malicious content into the user's cache under a trusted name. Being able to substitute a jQuery cache hit on a user's browser with a malicious script would be of great value to an evildoer.
Since subresource integrity would already provide a guarantee that the content to be cached matches a developer defined cryptographic hash, a cache poisoning attack is fairly difficult to execute. The attacker would have to brute force generate an attack script that matches the same cryptographic hash as the intended target asset to impersonate. This alone is difficult. Furthermore, this would have to be done for exactly the hash function that the specific site that the attacker wants to inject their script in. Choosing a strong enough hash function for your integrity hash would make this an almost impossible task in the first place.
On top of that, the attacker would have to lure a potential target user to a phishing site that references the malicious script with the integrity hash of the intended 3rd party asset to inject itself as in the cache. And of course the visitor must not have the asset already in cache, otherwise, the poisoning attack will not work.
From my point of view, this attack is potentially devastating, but a successful execution is practically impossible. SHA-256 has no known conflicts yet, and this attack depends on hitting a conflict for a very specific piece of content.
The shared cache based on content identity was very promising since it would create a collaborative caching ecosystem with no investment from the browsing user, and little investment from site developers. However, there are other ways to improve shared caching of 3rd party assets.
One solution is for the frontend community to come together and standardize on a single CDN so all sites reference the same URL's, thus increasing the chances of cache hits. This makes it a people problem rather than a technical one. For that reason I see very little chance of this ever happening.
Another solution is one that the browser users themselves can opt into. The Web Boost Chrome extension maintains a list of blessed URL's of known and popular 3rd party libraries and the content of the libraries. It intercepts requests to these URL's and serves a response from the plugins own distribution. The downside is that is the extension ever gets hacked or the author becomes a malicious actor it's very hard to know and avoid for the users that have this installed.