WebGL hit by hard-to-fix browser security flaw

The graphics technology is used by default in Firefox and Chrome

The WebGL graphics technology turned on by default in Firefox and Chrome poses a serious security risk and IT managers should consider disabling it, a security consultancy has recommended.

The flaws researched by UK consultancy Context Information Security are serious enough, the company said, to allow an attacker to compromise the attacked PC through the poorly defended graphics card layer, or at the very least crash the system to make it more vulnerable to exploits.

The company refused to offer details of the specific vulnerabilities it had experimented with but confirmed that it had been able to exploit systems using proof-of-concept attacks with certain graphics cards in a way -- kernel mode -- that breached the most secure ring of an OS.

"The risks stem from the fact that most graphics cards and drivers have not been written with security in mind so that the interface (API) they expose assumes that the applications are trusted," said Context Research and Development Manager Michael Jordan.

"While this may be true for local applications, the use of WebGL-enabled, browser-based applications with certain graphics cards now poses serious threats from breaking the cross-domain security principle to denial of service attacks, potentially leading to full exploitation of a user's machine," Jordan said.

The most serious of Context's claims is that the flaws in WebGL are inherent to its architecture and will therefore be extremely difficult to fix.

"In the short term, individual end users or IT departments can avoid potential problems by simply disabling WebGL within their browsers; but the only long-term solution is for the developers of WebGL itself to ensure that the specification is designed and tested to prevent these types of risks," Jordan said. The company believes that WebGL was not suitable for mass adoption.

WebGL was developed as an offshoot of the OpenGL standard in order to allow 3D graphics to render inside browsers using Javascript without the need for plug-ins. It has been supported in Firefox from 4.x onward by default, in Google Chrome from 9.x onward, and will run in development versions of Safari on Mac or PC. Windows, Mac OS X and Linux could all be affected.

WebGL will not, however, run reliably on an unknown number of graphics cards, including Intel's integrated graphics and most ATI chipsets. The easiest way to work out whether a specific card/browser combination is supported is to try to run WebGL graphics using one of a number of public project pages

using a supported browser or attempting to run Context's own proof-of-concept demo. A failure on these should mean that the machine is safe unless support is added at a later date.

Disabling WebGL varies from browser to browser but in Firefox involves setting a required value to "false" using the about:config command.

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John E. Dunn

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