NMandelbrot : Clients gaming the system

Mandelbrot set with suspicious lines
There’s a glitch in the data

In any system with clients outside your direct control, you will be subject to Rule 1 of network security : Don’t trust the client. For the Mandelbrot Set, the worst that can happen to the result is that a few pixels go astray, provided the input is properly sanitised to protect the server.

For more complex calculations, where the data matters, it may be of interest to some parties to try and skew the results. In the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence hack, for example, participants were claiming credits for work not done, or submitting bad data, so some verification of the result is required, which can either be done on the server, or by submitting the same work to multiple clients and getting them to “vote” on the result, which requires a much smarter reduce algorithm than is available in the sample code.

Note that securing the client code (e.g. by obfuscation or delivering a non-JS payload to execute the algorithm) is no defence, given that there must be a globally accessible service for the clients to talk to in order to get any data back. The channel itself can be secured, providing you don’t trust the encryption for long, but even with client-side security, such as an SSL certificate, as soon as the code leaves your server, you no longer have any guarantee over it. Given the importance and sensitivity of your data, that may or may not be a problem.

Anyone who doesn’t validate all inputs on the server is handing the keys to their attacker*, but when you don’t know what the input should be (otherwise, why do the calculation at all), you have to find a way to build trust. Maybe each client gets tagged with an id, non-traceable to a user, and the validity of responses from that client can be measured over time to give a trust rating, allowing the voting to be weighted to prefer results from trusted clients, assuming there is a mechanism in place to lose trust if a client is compromised.

Maybe the payload includes some hidden data, a known, non-repeating, throwaway result (similar to a 2-factor authentication token) whose only purpose is to validate that the client is responding correctly, but is otherwise indistinguishable from real data.

There’s no one solution to fit all situations, and the server and client cost of the solution will be correlated with the importance of the data, up to the point where the data, even in a subset, and even with protections, is too important to be opened to untrusted machines.

There are many other client-side attacks or mitigations I have missed, so feel free to add your own suggestions below.

* Note : you can do client-side validation prior to sending to the server for usability reasons, but not for security.


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