Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


New web privacy system could revolutionize the safety of surfing


Researchers from UCL, Stanford Engineering, Google, Chalmers and Mozilla Research have built a new system that protects Internet users' privacy whilst increasing the flexibility for web developers to build web applications that combine data from different web sites, dramatically improving the safety of surfing the web.

The system, 'Confinement with Origin Web Labels,' or COWL, works with Mozilla's Firefox and the open-source version of Google's Chrome web browsers and prevents malicious code in a web site from leaking sensitive information to unauthorised parties, whilst allowing code in a web site to display content drawn from multiple web sites – an essential function for modern, feature-rich web applications.

Testing of COWL prototypes for the Chrome and Firefox web browsers shows the system provides strong security without perceptibly slowing the loading speed of web pages. Following its announcement today, COWL will be freely available for download and use on 15th October from

The team who developed it, including two PhD students from Stanford (working in collaboration with Mozilla Research) and a recently graduated PhD from UCL (now employed by Google), hope COWL will be widely adopted by web developers.

Currently, web users' privacy can be compromised by malicious JavaScript code hidden in seemingly legitimate web sites. The web site's operator may have incorporated code obtained elsewhere into his or her web site without realising that the code contains bugs or is malicious. Such code can access sensitive data within the same or other browser tabs, allowing unauthorised parties to obtain or modify data without the user's knowledge.

The research team describe COWL in a paper that will appear in the Proceedings of the 11th USENIX Symposium on Operating Systems Design and Implementation, a premier venue for operating systems research.

Co-author Professor Brad Karp (UCL Computer Science), said: "COWL achieves both privacy for the user and flexibility for the web application developer. Achieving both these aims, which are often in opposition in many system designs, is one of the central challenges in computer systems security research.

"The new system provides a property known as 'confinement' which has been known since the 1970s, but proven difficult to achieve in practical systems like web browsers. COWL confines JavaScript programs that run within the browser, such as in separate tabs. If a JavaScript program embedded within one web site reads information provided by another web site – legitimately or otherwise – COWL permits the data to be shared, but thereafter restricts the application receiving the information from communicating it to unauthorised parties. As a result, the site that shares data maintains control over it, even after sharing the information within the browser."

Co-author Professor David Mazières (Stanford University Computer Science), said: "Security mechanisms for the web must keep pace with the web's rapid evolution. Current measures, such as the Same Origin Policy (SOP), work by stopping JavaScript programs embedded within one web site – malicious or otherwise – from reading data hosted by a separate web site. This brittle approach doesn't work for modern so-called 'mashup' applications that combine information from multiple web sites. Essentially, the SOP doesn't fit how many web sites are built today. And prior attempts at weakening the SOP to allow this sort of sharing, such as with Cross-Origin Resource Sharing (CORS), make it trivial for malicious code to leak sensitive data to unauthorised parties."

When building a modern web site, web developers routinely incorporate JavaScript library code written by third-party authors of unknowable intent. The study cites measurements indicating that 59% of the top one million web sites and 77% of the top 10,000 web sites incorporate a JavaScript library written by a third party. The team say such inclusion of JavaScript libraries is dangerous, as although the code includes features the web developers want, it might also contain malicious code that steals the browser user's data. In such cases, the SOP cannot protect sensitive data, as the included library is hosted by the same web site origin (i.e., under the same Internet domain name).

Professor Karp said: "By blocking the building of web applications that synthesize content from multiple web sites, the SOP actually forces web developers to make design choices that put users' privacy at risk. That's a problem we've solved with COWL.

"For example, one useful web application would let users check they're not being overcharged for items they've ordered from Amazon. The app would have to pull in information from the user's bank statement and Amazon, reconcile the two, and present the result in the browser. To do this, a web developer would need to write code that integrated data from the bank's web site with data from Amazon's web site but the SOP would block this, as the two data sources are hosted by different web domain names. Today's web developers get around this by writing an app that asks the user for their bank and Amazon login credentials, so it can log into both services and collect information as if it is the user. This clearly compromises the user's privacy as the provider of the app gains full access to the user's online banking system and Amazon account."

Deian Stefan, lead PhD student on the project at Stanford, said: "What we've achieved in COWL is a system that lets web developers build feature-rich applications that combine data from different web sites without requiring that users share their login details directly with third-party web applications, all while ensuring that the user's sensitive data seen by such an application doesn't leave the browser. Both web developers and users win."

The research team has shown how to use COWL to build four applications previously unachievable with strong privacy, including an encrypted document editor, a third-party mashup application, a password manager, and a web site that safely includes an untrusted third-party library.


Notes for Editors

For a copy of the paper or to speak to the researchers involved, please contact Dr Rebecca Caygill in the UCL press office, T: +44 (0)20 3108 3846, E:

Stefan, D., Yang, E., Marchenko, P., Russo, A., Herman, D., Karp, B., and Mazières, D., Protecting Users by Confining JavaScript with COWL, to appear in the Proceedings of the 11th USENIX Symposium on Operating Systems Design and Implementation (OSDI 2014), Broomfield, CO, October, 2014.

Rebecca Caygill | Eurek Alert!
Further information:

All articles from Information Technology >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

New method increases energy density in lithium batteries

24.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

International team discovers novel Alzheimer's disease risk gene among Icelanders

24.10.2016 | Life Sciences

New bacteria groups, and stunning diversity, discovered underground

24.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>