November 3, 2019. 6 minutes read.

Securely distributing and signing WebAssembly modules using OCI and TUF

In the previous article we started exploring how the WebAssembly System Interface project (WASI) aims to standardize WebAssembly to run outside of the web by bringing a portable and sandboxed environment, and how runtimes like wasmtime come closer and closer to being a viable alternative to the current container ecosystem. In order to achieve this, we need a way to distribute WebAssembly modules that is independent of toolchain - and we used the OCI Artifacts project to distribute them using container registries. Taking this line of thought one step further, we also need a way to ensure the secure delivery of modules between publishers, registries, and clients - and in this article we will explore how to use The Update Framework and Notary to sign and validate WebAssembly modules.

TUF and Notary

Consider the general scenario of a client pulling a target file from a repository. While the use of SSL / TLS protects the client from man-in-the-middle attacks, the system is not compromise-resilient - if an attacker compromises the infrastructure of the registry, they can modify or change the target file. In other words, the use of SSL / TLS secures the target file while in transit, but not at rest. This is where The Update Framework comes into play - a CNCF Incubation project that provides a flexible framework and specification that developers can adopt into any software update system, which helps protect even against attackers that compromise the repository or signing keys.

If we were to use TUF to securely distribute WebAssembly modules, the publisher of a module would:

  • sign the content digest of the module using a private key
  • push the content digest and the public key used to sign it to a trust server
  • push the module to an OCI registry

Then, a client tool that wished to use the module would:

  • pull the content digest and public key from the trust server (by performing all necessary steps in the TUF workflow )
  • pull the WebAssembly module from the OCI registry
  • compare the signed digest pulled from the trust server with the actual content digest of the pulled module. If any verification fails, the client would stop execution and abort any further usage of the module.

Following this workflow guarantees protection against a wide range of possible attacks , and ultimately ensures that the original content of a module reaches a client unaltered. Of course, there are numerous other types of attacks that TUF doesn’t protect against, and if you are interested in the goals and non-goals of the TUF project, I recommend you read the introduction of the specification . Notary is an implementation of TUF used by multiple container registries through Docker Content Trust , and we will use it to perform the TUF workflows for WebAssembly modules.

Work to implement the TUF workflows for PyPi is underway in PEP 458 and PEP 480 .

The Cloud Native Application Bundles project (CNAB) also proposes the use of TUF to ensure the integrity of bundles between registries and clients. You can find the work in progress for the CNAB specification here , as well as draft implementations in Go and Python . The example for WebAssembly modules in this article is based on the Go integration of Notary done for CNAB.

Signing and validating WebAssembly modules using TUF

In the next section we will see how to expand the wasm-to-oci tool we started in the previous article to perform TUF signatures and verifications.

At a very high level, before pushing the module we’re using the Notary client libraries to:

  • initialize a new trust repository - this will generate the signing keys and add them to the repository
  • add the target WebAssembly module to the repository - specifically, this step will compute the content digest of the module, then add it to the targets role of the collection, with the public part of the key
  • publish the repository to the trust server
// initialize a new TUF repository
err = notaryRepo.Initialize(rootKeyIDs);

// add our target module to the repository
target, err := notaryClient.NewTarget(name, module, ...)
err = notaryRepo.AddTarget(target,...)

// publish the repository to the TUF server
err = notaryRepo.Publish()

The main difference to note here compared to Docker Content Trust is that we are signing the content digest of the actual WebAssembly module, not of the OCI manifest, so the signature is persisted regardless of any compression or archiving operation done by the registry. Integrating this to our existing functionality, we first push the signed content digest to the trust server, then push the module to the OCI registry:

$ sha256sum testdata/hello.wasm
4c7915b4c1f9b0c13f962998e4199ceb00db39a4a7fa4554f40ae0bed83d9510  testdata/hello.wasm

$ wasm-to-oci push testdata/hello.wasm localhost:5000/hello-wasm-signed:v1
    --server https://localhost:4443

INFO[0000] Pushed trust data for localhost:5000/hello-wasm-signed:v1:4c7915b4c1f9b0c13f962998e4199ceb00db39a4a7fa4554f40ae0bed83d9510
INFO[0000] Pushed: localhost:5000/hello-wasm-signed:v1
INFO[0000] Size: 1624962
INFO[0000] Digest: sha256:9c82cbe576ee947c00435ac8053a800a1969f4757ae4a81f870f714674afc91a

Then, a client that wishes to consume the module will pull the module from the OCI registry and the trust data from the TUF server, then will compare the two content digests - if the digests match, the client can further use the module:

$ wasm-to-oci pull localhost:5000/hello-wasm-signed:v1
    --server https://localhost:4443
    --output test.wasm

INFO[0000] Pulled: localhost:5000/hello-wasm-signed:v1
INFO[0000] Size: 1624962
INFO[0000] Digest: sha256:4c7915b4c1f9b0c13f962998e4199ceb00db39a4a7fa4554f40ae0bed83d9510
INFO[0000] Pulled trust data for localhost:5000/hello-wasm-signed:v1, with role targets
INFO[0000] Pulled SHA256: 4c7915b4c1f9b0c13f962998e4199ceb00db39a4a7fa4554f40ae0bed83d9510
INFO[0000] Computed SHA: 4c7915b4c1f9b0c13f962998e4199ceb00db39a4a7fa4554f40ae0bed83d9510
INFO[0000] The SHA sums are equal: 4c7915b4c1f9b0c13f962998e4199ceb00db39a4a7fa4554f40ae0bed83d9510

$ wasmtime test.wasm
Hello from WebAssembly!

But let’s explore what happens if the registry infrastructure has been compromised, and the initial module we published has been either modified, or replaced with a vulnerable one.

# we're inside the OCI registry - we see the module that we pushed earlier
$ sha256sum blobs/sha256/4c/4c7915b4c1f9b0c13f962998e4199ceb00db39a4a7fa4554f40ae0bed83d9510/data
4c7915b4c1f9b0c13f962998e4199ceb00db39a4a7fa4554f40ae0bed83d9510  blobs/sha256/4c/4c7915b4c1f9b0c13f962998e4199ceb00db39a4a7fa4554f40ae0bed83d9510/data

# now let's tamper with the module
# replace it with a vulnerable module and update the OCI manifest

# of course the content digest of the module changed
# sha256sum blobs/sha256/4c/4c7915b4c1f9b0c13f962998e4199ceb00db39a4a7fa4554f40ae0bed83d9510/data
b4a152df0c4ba62a98d00c489b036d4e1e48ed0c2a27ba05d8d489149bc267d5  blobs/sha256/4c/4c7915b4c1f9b0c13f962998e4199ceb00db39a4a7fa4554f40ae0bed83d9510/data

Assuming that the attacker also updated the manifests (trivial, if they had access to the registry), a client can pull the vulnerable module and start using it:

$ wasm-to-oci pull localhost:5000/hello-wasm-signed:v1 -o hacked
INFO[0000] Pulled: localhost:5000/hello-wasm-signed:v1
INFO[0000] Digest: sha256:b4a152df0c4ba62a98d00c489b036d4e1e48ed0c2a27ba05d8d489149bc267d5

$ wasmtime hacked

Now let’s perform the same operation, this time by performing the signature verification first:

$ wasm-to-oci pull localhost:5000/hello-wasm-signed:v1
    --sign --tlscacert=$NOTARY_CA
    --server https://localhost:4443

INFO[0000] Pulled: localhost:5000/hello-wasm-signed:v1
INFO[0000] Size: 1624962
INFO[0000] Digest: sha256:4c7915b4c1f9b0c13f962998e4199ceb00db39a4a7fa4554f40ae0bed83d9510
INFO[0000] Pulled trust data for localhost:5000/hello-wasm-signed:v1, with role targets -
SHA256: 4c7915b4c1f9b0c13f962998e4199ceb00db39a4a7fa4554f40ae0bed83d9510
INFO[0000] Computed SHA: b4a152df0c4ba62a98d00c489b036d4e1e48ed0c2a27ba05d8d489149bc267d5
Error: the digest sum of the artifact from the trusted collection is not equal to the computed digest

We see that the use of TUF prevents us from using a module that has been tampered with.


Attacks on software repositories happen all the time, and any future WebAssembly repository and client tooling should be prepared to mitigate these attacks. What we explored in this article represents a minimum security model in the event of an attack, and while the particular implementations used here for registry and TUF server (OCI registry and Notary) will most likely not end up being popular for WebAssembly, the concept of using TUF, or any other framework that ensures the integrity of modules should be considered for future implementations.

This concludes the experiment of trying to securely distribute WebAssembly modules OCI registries and TUF. You can find the complete implementation of wasm-to-oci used in the articles on GitHub . Let me know if you have thoughts on using the methods presented here, or other ideas on ensuring the integrity when distributing WebAssembly modules.

Thanks for reading!

Radu M

© Radu M 2021