Chromium OS Sandboxing

Author: Jorge Lucángeli Obes (

Non-security perspective: Christopher Wiley (


In Chrome OS, OS-level functionality (such as configuring network interfaces) is implemented by a collection of system services, and provided to Chrome over D-Bus. These system services have greater system and hardware access than Chrome.

Separating functionality like this prevents an attacker exploiting the Chrome browser through a malicious website to be able to access OS-level functionality directly. If Chrome were able to directly control network interfaces, a compromise in Chrome would give the attacker almost full control over the system. By having a separate network manager, we can reduce the functionality exposed to an attacker to just querying interfaces and performing pre-determined actions on them.

Chrome OS uses a few different mechanisms to isolate system services from Chrome and from each other. We use a helper program called Minijail (executable minijail0). In most cases, Minijail is used in the service’s init script to set up these mechanisms. In other cases, Minijail wrappers are used if a service wants to apply restrictions to the programs that it launches, or to itself.

Best practices for writing secure system services

Just remember that code has bugs, and these bugs can be used to take control of the code. An attacker can then do anything the original code was allowed to do. Therefore, code should only be given the absolute minimum level of privilege needed to perform its function.

Aim to keep your code lean, and your privileges low. Don’t run your service as root. If you need to use third-party code that you didn’t write, you should definitely make sure that you’re not running as root.

Use the libraries provided by the system/SDK. In Chrome OS, libchrome and libchromeos offer a lot of functionality to avoid reinventing the wheel, poorly. Don’t reinvent IPC, use D-Bus. Don’t open listening sockets, connect to the required service. If you need to receive HTTP/HTTPS connections, don’t write your own HTTP server, register a handler with the system web server (webservd).

Don’t (ab)use shell scripts, shell script logic is harder to reason about and shell command-injection bugs are easy to miss. If you need functionality separated from your main service, use normal C++ binaries, not shell scripts. Moreover, when you execute them, consider further restricting their privileges (see section Minijail wrappers).

Just tell me what I need to do

User ids

The first sandboxing mechanism is user ids. We try to run each service as its own user id, different from the root user, which allows us to restrict what files and directories the service can access, and also removes a big chunk of system functionality that’s only available to the root user. Using the permission_broker service as an example, here’s its Upstart config file (lives in /etc/init):



start on starting system-services
stop on stopping system-services
expect fork

exec minijail0 -i -u devbroker -c 0009 /usr/bin/permission_broker \

Minijail’s -u argument forces the target program (in this case permission_broker) to be executed as the devbroker user, instead of the root user. This is equivalent of doing sudo -u devbroker.

The user (devbroker in this example) needs to be added to the system using the user eclass, as in this CL (for a different user):

There’s a test in the CQ that keeps track of the users present on the system, so the test has to be updated at the same time the user is added, with another CL (e.g.  that needs to land at the same time. You can use CQ-DEPEND for this (, “How do I specify the dependencies of a change?”).


Some programs, however, require some of the system access usually granted only to the root user. We use capabilities for this. Capabilities allow us to grant a specific subset of root’s privileges to an otherwise unprivileged process. The link above has the full list of capabilities that can be granted to a process. Some of them are equivalent to root, so we avoid granting those. In general, most processes need capabilities to configure network interfaces, access raw sockets, or performing specific file operations. Capabilities are passed to Minijail using the -c switch.

permission_broker, for example, needs capabilities to be able to chown() device nodes.



start on starting system-services
stop on stopping system-services

exec minijail0 -u devbroker -c 0009 /usr/bin/permission_broker \

Capabilities are expressed using a capabilities mask, calculated from the index of the capability in capability.h, and changed to a mask as in CAP_TO_MASK:

#define CAP_TO_MASK(x)      (1 << ((x) & 31)) /* mask for indexed __u32 */


Many resources in the Linux world can be isolated now such that a process has its own view of things. For example, it has its own list of mount points, and any changes it makes (unmounting, mounting more devices, etc...) are only visible to it. This helps keep a broken process from messing up the settings of other processes.

For more in-depth details, see the namespaces overview.

In Chromium OS, we like to see every process/daemon run under as many unique namespaces as possible. Many are easy to enable/rationalize about: if you don't use a particular resource, then isolating it is straight forward. If you do rely on it though, it can take more effort.

Here's a quick overview. Use the command line option if the statement true (or if you don't know what functionality it's talking about -- most likely you aren't using it!).

  • -e: If your process doesn't need network access
  • -N: If your process doesn't need to modify control groups settings
  • -p -r: If your process doesn't need to access other processes in the system
  • -v: If your process doesn't need access to user mounts
  • -l: If your process doesn't use SysV shared memory or IPC


Access to the filesystem and root-only functionality is not enough to completely isolate a system service. A service running as its own user id and with no capabilities has access to a big chunk of the kernel API. The kernel therefore exposes a huge attack surface to non-root processes, and we would like to restrict what kernel functionality is available for sandboxed processes.

The mechanism we use is called Seccomp-BPF. Minijail can take a policy file that describes what syscalls will be allowed, what syscalls will be denied, and what syscalls will only be allowed with specific arguments. The full description of the policy file language can be found in the source.


An abridged example policy for mtpd on amd64 platforms:

# Copyright 2017 The Chromium OS Authors. All rights reserved.
# Use of this source code is governed by a BSD-style license that can be
# found in the LICENSE file.
read: 1
ioctl: 1
write: 1
timerfd_settime: 1
open: 1
poll: 1
close: 1
mmap: 1
mremap: 1
munmap: 1
mprotect: 1
lseek: 1
# Allow socket(domain==PF_LOCAL) or socket(domain==PF_NETLINK)
socket: arg0 == 0x1 || arg0 == 0x10
# Allow PR_SET_NAME from libchrome's base::PlatformThread::SetName()
prctl: arg0 == 0xf


Any syscall not explicitly mentioned, when called, results in the process being killed. The policy file can also tell the kernel to fail the system call (returning -1 and setting errno) without killing the process:

# execve: return EPERM
execve: return 1

To write a policy file, run the target program under strace and use that to come up with the list of syscalls that need to be allowed during normal execution.

You can also add the -L flag to the minijail command line. This will log details about bad/unknown syscalls so you can further refine the policy.


The policy file needs to be installed in the system, so we need to add it to the ebuild file:


# Install seccomp policy file.
insinto /opt/google/mtpd
newins "mtpd-seccomp-${ARCH}.policy" mtpd-seccomp.policy


And finally, the policy file has to be passed to Minijail, using the -S flag


# use minijail (drop root, set no_new_privs, set seccomp filter)
exec minijail0 -u mtp -g mtp -G -n -S /opt/google/mtpd/mtpd-seccomp.policy \
-- /opt/google/mtpd/mtpd -minloglevel="${MTPD_MINLOGLEVEL}"

Minijail wrappers