CS261 Projects

General information

Your term project should address a research issue in computer security and consist of the design of some computer security system or technique, or the analysis and possible improvement of some existing system or technique. The main goal of the project is to do original research on a problem of interest in computer security.

You should work in a small group; I expect that teams of approximately 2--3 will be appropriate for most projects. Of course, expectations will be adjusted according to the number of people in your group. I will not categorically rule out solo teams, but I expect that working in groups will allow you to tackle more substantial research issues. If you have trouble finding a project partner, I can help you get matched up with someone else by maintaining a list of people seeking teammates.

Projects will be evaluated on the quality of their research in computer security. At the end of the semester, you will write a conference-style paper on your work. See below for more details.

I expect that most projects will fall (more or less) into one of two categories:

  1. Design. Design projects will usually attempt to solve some interesting problem by proposing a design; implementing a prototype; and using the implementation as a basis for evaluating the proposed system architecture.
  2. Analysis. Analysis projects might, for example, study some previously-proposed implementation technique, existing system, or class of systems; evaluate its security properties; find flaws, or strengths, in it; and provide new insight into how to build secure systems.
The research should be relevant to computer security, but this will be interpreted broadly. You are encouraged to find topics of interest to you; feel free to be creative in selecting a project topic. You're welcome to pick a topic that is connected to your current research: for instance, if your primary research interest is in digital libraries, you would be welcome to do a class project on some aspect of security, cryptography, or privacy in digital libraries.

If you're at a loss for a project topic, I've prepared a list of possible project topics that you can peruse as examples of how to a pick a suitable project. See below. But don't feel limited to these suggestions! They are intended only as examples.

You're welcome to come discuss possible project ideas with me, if you like. I'm happy to make myself available to discuss projects.

A final suggestion: Aim high! The top projects could lead to publication. In past years, the best two or three projects have consistently led to publications.

The process

You will write a concise (approximately 1 page) project proposal. It should have three sections:

The project proposal is due Friday October 30.

Here's how to submit your proposal. You should put together a web page for your project; currently all it needs to contain is the project members, their email addresses, title of your project, and the project proposal. Then just email the URL for your project web page to daw@cs.berkeley.edu by October 30.

In mid-November I might ask you to write a concise status report so I can make sure the projects are on-track. I am always available to meet with any groups who would like to discuss their project, request additional resources, or ask for advice.

The poster session was held on Friday, December 11, 1-3pm, on the 6th floor.

Finally, the project report is due on Thursday Dec 17th at 11:59pm.

The final report

You are expected to write a technical paper, in the style of a conference submission, on the research you have done. State the problem you're solving, motivate why it is an important or interesting problem, present your research thoroughly and clearly, compare to any related work that may exist, summarize your research contributions, and draw whatever conclusions may be appropriate. There is no page limit (either minimum or maximum), and reports will be evaluated on technical content (not on length), but I expect most project reports will probably be between 7--15 pages long.

If you are not familiar with writing conference-style papers in computer science (or even if you are), the following resources may help:

You may submit your project report electronically or on paper. I prefer electronic submission, although you may choose either. In either case, the deadline is the same.

If you submit electronically:

  1. Please use a format which is easily readable on Unix platforms: PDF, Postscript, or HTML is fine.
  2. Place a link to the file on your project web page and send me email with the URL. I will send you confirmation of receipt.
If you submit on paper, place it in my mailbox in Soda Hall (in the mailroom, or outside my office -- 733 Soda).

Example ideas for project topics

If you are interested in any of the project topics below, feel free to talk to me about it; I may be able to make some more concrete suggestions.

Analysis and attacks

Security analysis of HTML sanitization libraries
There are many open-source libraries available that aim to sanitize HTML (e.g., for RSS feeds). Following up on HW1 and HW2, do a thorough security analysis of a suite of sanitization libraries. What lessons did you find?
Analysis of OpenSSH
Do a security review of the OpenSSH privilege separation architecture. Assuming there is some way to compromise the slave, how effective is OpenSSH at containing the damage that can be done by a malicious slave? What damage could a malicious slave do? How could the architecture/implementation be improved?
Security auditing
Evaluate the security of some widely-used or under-scrutinized open-source package. Report on your experiences and lessons. How would you re-structure/re-implement the system to make it more robust? What tools would have made your auditing task easier? How effective are existing tools?
Security review of published schemes
Pick any recently published paper that proposes a new security mechanism or scheme. Ask the authors for the code. Perform a careful security review of the paper's scheme; does it meet the claims made for it? To find recent papers, you could peruse recent proceedings of Usenix Security, IEEE Security & Privacy, ACM CCS, ISOC Network and Distributed System Security, or other security-related conferences.

Web security

Defending legacy web apps
Recent work has studied how to protect legacy web applications against authentication/authorization bypass attacks. A system called CLAMP has pioneered a fascinating approach for retrofitting defenses onto a legacy system, based upon ensuring that web application code can only access those parts of the database that should be accessible to the current logged-in user. However, CLAMP introduces a significant performance overhead, due to its use of virtual machines. Can you make these ideas perform and scale better, perhaps by using some other mechanism for isolation? Perhaps SELinux, OS process isolation, or some sandboxing scheme, instead of virtual machines?
Safe-by-default web frameworks
Recently, several web frameworks have started to include features intended to ensure that web applications built using that framework will be secure-by-default, at least against a class of security vulnerabilities. In particular, Rails, Grails, and Django 1.0 include some defenses against cross-site scripting and/or SQL injection. Systematically analyze the security of these frameworks. They tend to use a one-size-fits-all escaping function, which escapes all HTML content in the same way, no matter where in the HTML document it will be used (as text, an attribute value, a URL, etc.). You could study whether this is sufficient to be secure. Under what conditions is a web application built in each framework guaranteed to be free of cross-site scripting vulnerabilities? SQL injection vulnerabilities? other vulnerabilities? Can you build a static or dynamic analysis tool to verify whether these conditions have been met, for a particular web application? Could you extend the framework to ensure web apps are safe-by-default against a broader class of security holes as well? What are the primary barriers to adoption of these mechanisms, for users of earlier versions of Rails/Grails/Django? Can you build tools to help migrate code written before the advent of these mechanisms to the new safe-by-default version of the framework?
Taint tracking for Javascript
Can you build efficient taint-tracking mechanisms for Javascript, by monkey-patching Javascript prototypical objects (e.g., the String class)? What is the performance overhead? Can this be used to detect client-side cross-site scripting and other attacks on the client part of AJAX web applications? Can it be used to retrofit legacy web apps with defenses against client-side XSS?
Web frameworks
There are many frameworks and libraries out there for building web services (especially for Java). Pick a handful and analyze them in detail. Do they protect against common types of web vulnerabilities? Compare them: which would be the best choice, for a project where security is important?
Key management for SSL
Today, one of the barriers to deploying SSL on small sites is the cost of buying a SSL certificate; and there are questions about whether these certificates add much value anyway (as the CAs don't always do a lot of verification). An alternate model might be to use a SSH-like key management paradigm (sometimes called Key Continuity Management) -- but it's not clear how one could make that work well in practice, on the web. You could take a look at possible schemes for this.

Software security

Evaluation of tools
There are now a number of static and dynamic analysis tools for finding security vulnerabilities and reliability bugs in programs, including Coverity, Klee, CREST, BuzzFuzz, SmartFuzz, and zzuf. Devise and carry out a set of experiments to evaluate their effectiveness and probe their relative strengths and weaknesses. Can you characterize their effectiveness quantitatively?
Inferring security annotations for C/C++ programs
Microsoft has proposed SAL, a set of annotations for C and C++ code intended to help avoid buffer overrun and similar vulnerabilities: the programmer annotates their code with information about buffer lengths and the like, and a static analysis tool checks those annotations to detect possible bugs. See also Deputy, an open-source system from Berkeley with similar goals. Writing these annotations can get a bit tedious. Can you design a dynamic analysis tool that observes code as it runs and infers SAL/Deputy annotations from how the code is used? For instance, if you run the program on 1000 inputs, and in every case, function f() is only called with null-terminated strings, you might infer a SAL/Deputy annotating asserting that the argument to f() is always null-terminated. (See also Daikon, though Daikon is a general-purpose tool; you can probably do a lot better by focusing specifically on the kinds of properties that SAL/Deputy are designed for.) Tools like Valgrind, CIL, ltrace, etc. could be a good building block for this project.
Avoiding integer overflow vulnerabilities in Java
Modern type-safe languages like Java improve on C/C++ by eliminating many classes of vulnerabilities that have plagued C/C++ programs, but it does not eliminate integer overflow and integer casting vulnerabilities. One way to write Java code that is free of integer overflow bugs is to use java.lang.BigInteger (infinite-precision integers) instead of int. However, this introduces a notational burden and makes code less readable: e.g., instead of writing x*(y+z) - 2, the programmer must write x.times(y.plus(z)).minus(new BigInteger(2)). Can you come up with an extension to Java that eliminates this notational burden? For instance, you might build a tool that performs source-to-source translation to transform the former short version into the latter long version before compilation, allowing programmers to use the ordinary binary operators with BigIntegers.
Privilege separation
Pick an interesting security-critical application that is currently implemented monolithically. Investigate how to apply privilege separation techniques to reduce the size of the TCB. Can you implement your new design and evaluate its effectiveness? If you were designing the application from scratch, how would you design it to maximize its security? Any network client or server could be a good candidate for investigation.
Software verification tools for security
Researchers have recently made dramatic improvements in tools for software verification. See, e.g., ESC/Java2 and JML (verification tools for Java) and Spec# (a verification tool for C#). These tools allow programmers to verify properties, such as that the program will never throw a NullPointerException, ArrayIndexBoundsOutofBoundsException, or other runtime exception, and that the program will never use uninitialized memory. Since unexpected exceptions can cause surprising behavior (which is dangerous in a security-critical program), these could be useful for secure programming. You might study how useful and expensive these are for security. For instance, pick one or two security-critical applications written in Java or C# and attempt to verify that they satisfy some useful property (e.g., free of runtime exceptions). How many annotations did you have to add? How much time or effort did it take? Did the effort reveal any vulnerabilities? Or, you might try to see if you can express any of the security requirements for those applications into the JML/Spec# modelling language and see whether it is possible to verify that those requirements are met by the code. Are the JML/Spec# annotation languages rich enough to specify important security policies? If not, what kinds of extensions would be useful for security? Are the existing tools powerful enough to verify that code meets those requirements?
Virtual machines for security
Virtual machines (e.g., VMWare, Xen, etc.) seem to provide a powerful mechanism for executing dangerous actions in an isolated environment. How secure are existing commercial virtual machines? How hard would it be for a malicious guest application to defeat the VM and harm the host OS? (For instance, an interesting project would be to look at a few commercial or open source VMs and try to see if you can break isolation.) How would you design a high-assurance VM to be sure that isolation could not be compromised and to make it as easy as possible to verify that these security goals have been met?


Automated signature verification
Banks, election administrators, and others use automated tools to verify your (ink) signature, to check that your signature matches the one they have on file. It would be interesting to survey the field and analyze the security of the state-of-the-art algorithms for this; how hard is it to forge a signature that will pass the automated verification process? Alternatively, you could study new algorithms for signature verification that are hard to fool.