Reminder: SoupSessionSync and SoupSessionAsync default to no TLS certificate verification

This is a public service announcement! The modern SoupSession class is secure by default, but the older, deprecated SoupSessionSync and SoupSessionAsync subclasses of SoupSession are not. If your code uses SoupSessionSync or SoupSessionAsync and does not set SoupSession:tls-database, SoupSession:ssl-use-system-ca-file, or SoupSession:ssl-ca-file, then you get no TLS certificate verification. This is almost always worth requesting a CVE.

SoupSessionSync and SoupSessionAsync have both been deprecated since libsoup 2.42 was released back in 2013, so surely they are no longer commonly used, right? Right? Of course not, so please check your applications and make sure they’re actually doing TLS certificate verification. Thanks!

Free Software Charities

I believe we have reached a point where it is time to discontinue donations to the Free Software Foundation, in light of the outrageously poor judgment shown by its board of directors in reinstating Richard Stallman to the board. I haven’t seen other free software community members calling for cutting off donations yet. Even the open letter doesn’t call for this. Edit: I’ve been pointed to the line “We urge those in a position to do so to stop supporting the Free Software Foundation,” which surely implies a call to stop donating, so I was wrong about that.

I have no doubt there will be follow-up blog posts explaining why cutting off donations is harmful to the community and the FSF’s staff, and will hurt the FSF in the long-term… but seriously, enough is enough. If we don’t draw the line here, there will never be any line anywhere. Continued support for the FSF is continued complicity, and is harming rather than helping advance the ideals of the free software community. So, where should you donate instead?

The Software Freedom Conservancy is a great choice. It hosts many member projects you’re probably familiar with, including Outreachy and git, among many others. It does some GPL compliance work and takes a strict view on software freedom. For US donors, it is a 501(c)(3), so your donations may be tax-deductible. This is where I send my free software donations not directed to GNOME. Read its statement on recent events at the FSF.

Another good option, especially for people in the EU, is the Free Software Foundation Europe, an independently-run sister organization of the FSF. If you’re not familiar with FSFE, think of it as a more moderate version of the FSF, with a special focus on Europe. It shares the same goals as the FSF, but with more reasonable leadership and much less popcorn. Read its statement on recent events at the FSF.

Most people reading this blog are likely GNOME users. Contributing to GNOME is a great way to support the desktop you use to get things done. Monthly sustaining donations are especially appreciated. Despite the historical association between GNOME and GNU, GNOME has had little to do with GNU for a long time now. The GNOME Foundation is run independently and has formally signed the open letter calling for the resignation of the FSF’s board of directors. For US donors, it is a 501(c)(3). (If you use KDE, donate to KDE here.)

It should be obvious, but this is a personal blog. None of the above organizations have endorsed cutting off donations to the FSF, to my knowledge. They would probably find it to be in poor taste to abuse a crisis to solicit funds. But I doubt they’d object if you send some money their way.

Understanding systemd-resolved, Split DNS, and VPN Configuration

So, systemd-resolved is enabled by default in Fedora 33. Most users won’t notice the difference, but if you use VPNs — or depend on DNSSEC, more on that at the bottom of this post — then systemd-resolved might be big deal for you. When testing Fedora 33, we found one bug report where a user discovered that systemd-resolved broke his VPN configuration. After this bug was fixed, and nobody reported any further issues, I was pretty confident that migration to systemd-resolved would go smoothly. Then Fedora 33 was released, and I noticed a significant number of users on Ask Fedora and Reddit asking for help with broken VPNs, problems that Fedora 33 beta testers had failed to detect. This was especially surprising to me because Ubuntu has enabled systemd-resolved by default since Ubuntu 16.10, so we were four full years behind Ubuntu here, which should have been plenty of time for any problems to be ironed out. So what went wrong?

First, let’s talk about how things worked before systemd-resolved, so we can see what was wrong and why we needed change. We’ll see how split DNS with systemd-resolved is different than traditional DNS. Finally, we’ll learn how custom VPN software must configure systemd-resolved to avoid problems that result in broken DNS.

I want to note that, although I wrote the Fedora change proposal and have done some evangelism on behalf of systemd-resolved, I’m not a systemd developer and haven’t contributed any code to systemd-resolved.

Traditional DNS with nss-dns

Let’s first see how things worked before systemd-resolved. There are two important configuration files to discuss. The first is /etc/nsswitch.conf, which controls which NSS modules are invoked by glibc when performing name resolution. Note these are glibc Name Service Switch modules, which are totally unrelated to Firefox’s NSS, Network Security Services, which unfortunately uses the same acronym. Also note that, in Fedora (and also Red Hat Enterprise Linux), /etc/nsswitch.conf is managed by authselect and must not be edited directly. If you want to change it, you need to edit /etc/authselect/user-nsswitch.conf instead, then run sudo authselect apply-changes.

Anyway, in Fedora 32, the hosts line in /etc/nsswitch.conf looked like this:

hosts: files mdns4_minimal [NOTFOUND=return] dns myhostname

That means: first invoke nss-files, which looks at /etc/hosts to see if the hostname is hardcoded there. If it’s not, then invoke nss-mdns4_minimal, which uses avahi to implement mDNS resolution. [NOTFOUND=return] means it’s OK for avahi to not be installed; in that case, it just gets ignored. (Edit: this was wrong. Mantas mentioned in the comment below that this is to allow returning early for queries to .local domains, which should never go to the remaining nss modules.) Then most DNS resolution is performed by nss-dns. And finally, we have nss-myhostname, which is just there to guarantee that your own local hostname is always resolvable. Anyway, nss-dns is the key part here. nss-dns is what reads /etc/resolv.conf.

Next, let’s look at /etc/resolv.conf. This file contains a list of up to three DNS servers to use. The servers are attempted in order. If the first server in the list is broken, then the second server will be used. If the second server is broken, the third server will be used. If the third server is also broken, then everything fails, because no matter how many servers you list here, all except the first three are ignored. In Fedora 32, /etc/resolv.conf was, by default, a plain file managed by NetworkManager. It might look like this:

# Generated by NetworkManager
nameserver 192.168.122.1

That’s a pretty common example. It means that all DNS requests should be sent to my router. My router must have configured this via DHCP, causing NetworkManager to dutifully add it to /etc/resolv.conf.

Traditional DNS Problems

Traditional DNS is all well and good for a simple case like we had above, but turns out it’s really broken once you start adding VPNs to the mix. Let’s consider two types of VPNs: a privacy VPN that is always enabled and which is the default route for all web traffic, and a corporate VPN that only receives traffic for internal company resources. (To switch between these two different types of VPN configuration, use the checkbox “Use this connection only for resources on its network” at the bottom of the IPv4 and IPv6 tabs of your VPN’s configuration in System Settings.)

Now, what happens if we connect to both VPNs? The VPN that you connect to first gets listed first in /etc/resolv.conf, followed by the VPN that you connect to second, followed by your local DNS server. Assuming the DNS servers are all working properly, that means:

  • If you connect to your privacy VPN first and your corporate VPN second, all DNS requests will be sent to your privacy VPN, and you won’t be able to visit internal corporate websites. (This scenario is exactly why I become interested in systemd-resolved. After joining Red Hat, I discovered that I couldn’t access various redhat.com websites if I connected to my VPNs in the wrong order.)
  • If you connect to your corporate VPN first and your privacy VPN second, then all your DNS goes to your corporate VPN, and none to your privacy VPN. As that defeats the point of using the privacy VPN, we can be confident it’s not what users expect to happen.
  • If you ever connect the VPNs in the opposite order — say, if your connection to one temporarily drops, and you need to reconnect — then you’ll get the opposite behavior. If you don’t notice this pattern behind the failures, it can make problems difficult to reproduce.

You don’t need two VPNs for this to be a problem, of course. Let’s say you have no privacy VPN, only a corporate VPN.  Well, your employer may fire you if it notices DNS requests it doesn’t like. If you’re making 30 requests per hour to facebook.com, youtube.com, or more salacious websites, that sure looks like you’re not doing very much work. It’s really never in the employee’s best interests to send more DNS than necessary to an employer.

If you use only a privacy VPN, the failure case is arguably even more severe. Let’s say your privacy VPN’s DNS server temporarily goes offline. Then, because /etc/resolv.conf is a list, glibc will fall back to using your normal DNS, probably either your ISP’s DNS server, or your router that forwards everything to your ISP. And now your DNS query has gone to your ISP. If you’re making the wrong sort of DNS requests in the wrong sort of countries — say, if you’re visiting websites opposed to your government — this could get you imprisoned or executed.

Finally, either type of VPN will break resolution of local domains, e.g. fritz.box, because only your router can resolve that properly, but you’re sending your DNS query to your VPN’s DNS server. So local resources will be broken for as long as you’re connected to a VPN.

All things considered, the status quo prior to systemd-resolved was pretty terrible. The need for something better should be clear. Now let’s look at how systemd-resolved fixes this.

Modern DNS with nss-resolve

First, let’s look at /etc/nsswitch.conf, which looks a bit different in Fedora 33:

hosts: files mdns4_minimal [NOTFOUND=return] resolve [!UNAVAIL=return] myhostname dns

nss-myhostname and nss-dns have switched places, but that’s just a minor change that ensures your local hostname is always local even if your DNS server thinks otherwise. (March 2021 Update: nss-myhostname has been moved before nss-mdns4_minimal for Fedora 34, so our new configuration is files myhostname mdns4_minimal [NOTFOUND=return] resolve [!UNAVAIL=return] dns.)

The important change here is the addition of resolve [!UNAVAIL=return]. nss-resolve uses systemd-resolved to resolve hostnames, via either its varlink API (with systemd 247) or its D-Bus API (with older versions of systemd). If systemd-resolved is running, glibc will stop there, and refuse to continue on to nss-myhostname or nss-dns even if nss-resolve doesn’t return a result, since both nss-myhostname and nss-dns are obsoleted by nss-resolve. But if systemd-resolved is not running, then it continues on (and, if resolving something other than the local hostname, will up using nss-dns and reading /etc/resolv.conf, as before).

Importantly, when nss-resolve is used, glibc does not read /etc/resolv.conf when performing name resolution, so any configuration that you put there is totally ignored. That means any script or program that writes to /etc/resolv.conf is probably broken. /etc/resolv.conf still exists, though: it’s managed by systemd-resolved to maintain compatibility with programs that manually read /etc/resolv.confand do their own name resolution, bypassing glibc. Although systemd-resolved supports several different modes for managing /etc/resolv.conf, the default mode, and the mode used in both Fedora and Ubuntu, is for /etc/resolv.conf to be a symlink to /run/systemd/resolve/stub-resolv.conf, which now looks like this:

# This file is managed by man:systemd-resolved(8). Do not edit.
#
# This is a dynamic resolv.conf file for connecting local clients to the
# internal DNS stub resolver of systemd-resolved. This file lists all
# configured search domains.
#
# Run "resolvectl status" to see details about the uplink DNS servers
# currently in use.
#
# Third party programs should typically not access this file directly, but only
# through the symlink at /etc/resolv.conf. To manage man:resolv.conf(5) in a
# different way, replace this symlink by a static file or a different symlink.
#
# See man:systemd-resolved.service(8) for details about the supported modes of
# operation for /etc/resolv.conf.

nameserver 127.0.0.53
options edns0 trust-ad
search redhat.com lan

The redhat.com search domain is coming from my corporate VPN, but the rest of this /etc/resolv.conf should look like yours. Notably, 127.0.0.53 is systemd-resolved’s local stub responder. This allows programs that manually read /etc/resolv.conf to continue to work without changes: they will just wind up talking to systemd-resolved on 127.0.0.53 rather than directly connecting to your real DNS server, as before.

A Word about Ubuntu

Although Ubuntu has used systemd-resolved for four years now, it has not switched from nss-dns to nss-resolve, contrary to upstream recommendations. This means that on Ubuntu, glibc still reads /etc/resolv.conf, finds 127.0.0.53 listed there, and then makes an IP connection to systemd-resolved rather than talking to it via varlink or D-Bus, as occurs on Fedora. The practical effect is that, on Ubuntu, you can still manually edit /etc/resolv.conf and applications will respond to those changes, unlike Fedora. Of course, that would be a disaster, since it would cause all of your DNS configuration in systemd-resolved to be completely ignored. But it’s still possible on Ubuntu. On Fedora, that won’t work at all.

If you’re using custom VPN software that doesn’t work with systemd-resolved, chances are it probably tries to write to /etc/resolv.conf.

Split DNS with systemd-resolved

OK, so now we’ve looked at how /etc/nsswitch.conf and /etc/resolve.conf have changed, but we haven’t actually explained how split DNS is configured. Instead of sending all your DNS requests to the first server listed in /etc/resolv.conf, systemd-resolved is able to split your DNS on the basis of DNS routing domains.

IP Routing Domains, DNS Routing Domains, and DNS Search Domains: Oh My!

systemd-resolved works with DNS routing domains and DNS search domains. A DNS routing domain determines only which DNS server your DNS query goes to.  It doesn’t determine where IP traffic goes to: that would be an IP routing domain. Normally, when people talk about “routing domains,” they probably mean IP routing domains, not DNS routing domains, so be careful not to confuse these two concepts. For the rest of this article, I will use “routing domain” or “DNS domain” to mean DNS routing domain.

A DNS search domain is also different. When you query a name that is only a single label — a domain without any dots — a search domain gets appended to your query. For example, because I’m currently connected to my Red Hat VPN, I have a search domain configured for redhat.com. This means that if I make a query to a domain that is only a single label, redhat.com will be appended to the query. For example, I can query bugzilla and this will be treated as a query for bugzilla.redhat.com. This probably won’t work in your web browser, because web browsers like to convert single-label domains into web searches, but it does work at the DNS level.

In systemd-resolved, each DNS routing domain may or may not be used as a search domain. By default, systemd-resolved will add search domains for every configured routing domain that is not prefixed by a tilde. For example, ~example.com is a routing domain only, while example.com is both a routing domain and a search domain. There is also a global routing domain,  ~.

Example Split DNS Configurations

Let’s look at a complex example with three network interfaces:

$ resolvectl
Global
Protocols: LLMNR=resolve -mDNS -DNSOverTLS DNSSEC=no/unsupported
resolv.conf mode: stub

Link 2 (enp4s0)
Current Scopes: DNS LLMNR/IPv4 LLMNR/IPv6 
Protocols: +DefaultRoute +LLMNR -mDNS -DNSOverTLS DNSSEC=no/unsupported
Current DNS Server: 192.168.1.1 
DNS Servers: 192.168.1.1 
DNS Domain: lan

Link 5 (tun0)
Current Scopes: DNS LLMNR/IPv4 LLMNR/IPv6 
Protocols: +DefaultRoute +LLMNR -mDNS -DNSOverTLS DNSSEC=no/unsupported
Current DNS Server: 10.8.0.1 
DNS Servers: 10.8.0.1 
DNS Domain: ~.

Link 9 (tun1)
Current Scopes: DNS LLMNR/IPv4 LLMNR/IPv6 
Protocols: -DefaultRoute +LLMNR -mDNS -DNSOverTLS DNSSEC=no/unsupported
Current DNS Server: 10.9.0.1 
DNS Servers: 10.9.0.1 10.9.0.2
DNS Domain: example.com

To simplify this example, I’ve removed several uninteresting network interfaces from the output above: my unused second Ethernet interface, my unused Wi-Fi interface wlp5s0, and two virtual network interfaces that I presume are used by libvirt. This means we only have three interfaces to consider: normal Ethernet enp4s0, the privacy VPN tun0, and the corporate VPN tun1. I’m currently running NetworkManager 1.26.4, so I have also fudged the output a bit to make it look like it would if I were using NetworkManager 1.26.6 — I’ll discuss the difference below — so that this example will be good for the future. Let’s look at a few points of note:

  • enp4s0 is configured with +DefaultRoute and no routing domains.
  • tun0 is configured with +DefaultRoute and a global routing domain, ~.
  • tun1 is configured with -DefaultRoute and a routing domain for example.com. (It also has a search domain for example.com, because it doesn’t start with a tilde.)

systemd-resolved first decides which network interface is most appropriate for your DNS query based on the domain name you are querying, then sends your query to the DNS server associated with that interface. In this case, queries for example.com, foo.example.com, etc. will be sent to 10.9.0.1, since that is the DNS server configured for tun1, which is associated with the domain example.com. All other requests go to 10.8.0.1, since tun0 has the global domain ~. Nothing ever goes to 192.168.1.1, because a privacy VPN is enabled, and that would be a privacy disaster. Very simple, right?

If you do not use a privacy VPN, you will not have any ~. domain configured. In this case, your query will go to all interfaces that have +DefaultRoute. For example, if tun0 were removed from the above configuration, then queries not for example.com would be sent to 192.168.1.1, my router, which is good because tun1 is my corporate VPN and should only receive DNS queries corresponding to its own DNS domains.

Enter NetworkManager

How does systemd-resolved come up with the above configuration? It doesn’t. Everything I wrote in the previous section assumes that you are using NetworkManager, because systemd-resolved doesn’t actually make any decisions about where to send your DNS. That is all the responsibility of higher-level network management software, typically NetworkManager. If you use custom VPN software — anything that’s not a NetworkManager VPN plugin — then that software is also responsible for configuring systemd-resolved and playing nice with NetworkManager.

NetworkManager normally does a very good job of configuring systemd-resolved to work as you would expect, so most users should not need to make any changes. But if your DNS isn’t working as you expect, and you run resolvectl and find that systemd-resolved’s configuration is not what you want, do not report a bug against systemd-resolved! Report a bug against NetworkManager instead (if you’re confident there is a real bug).

If you don’t use NetworkManager, you can still make systemd-resolved do what you want, but you’re on your own. It will not configure itself for you.

NetworkManager 1.26.6

If you’re reading this in December 2020, you’re probably using NetworkManager 1.26.4 or earlier. Things are slightly different here, because NetworkManager recently landed a major behavior change. Previously, NetworkManager would always configure a ~. domain for exactly one network interface. This means that the value of systemd-resolved’s DefaultRoute settings was always ignored, since ~. takes precedence. Accordingly, NetworkManager did not bother to configure DefaultRoute at all. I told you that I fudged the output of the example above a little. In actuality, NetworkManager 1.26.4 has configured +DefaultRoute on my tun1 corporate VPN. That doesn’t make sense, because it should only receive DNS for example.com, but it previously did not matter, because there was previously always a ~. domain on some interface. If you’re not using any VPNs, then your Ethernet or Wi-Fi interface would receive the ~. domain. But since 1.26.6, NetworkManager now only ever configures a ~. domain when you are using a privacy VPN, so the DefaultRoute setting now matters.

Prior to NetworkManager 1.26.6, you could rely on resolvectl domain alone to see where your DNS goes, because there was always a ~. domain. Since NetworkManager 1.26.6 no longer always creates a ~. domain, that no longer works. You’ll need to use look at the full output of resolvectl instead, since that will show you the DefaultRoute settings, which are now important.

My Corporate VPN is Missing a Routing Domain, What Should I Do?

Say your corporate VPN is example.com. You want all requests for example.com to be resolved by the VPN, and they are, because NetworkManager creates an appropriate routing domain for it. But you also want requests for some other domain, say example.org, to be resolved by the VPN as well. What do you do?

Most VPN protocols allow the VPN to tell NetworkManager which domains should be resolved by the VPN. Others allow specifying this in the connection profile that you import into NetworkManager. Sadly, not all VPNs actually do this properly, since it doesn’t matter for traditional non-split DNS. Worse, there is no graphical configuration in GNOME System Settings to fix this. There really should be. But for now, you’ll have to use nmcli to set the ipv4.dns-search and ipv6.dns-search properties of your VPN connection profile. Confusingly, even though that setting says “search,” it also creates a routing domain. Hopefully you never have to mess with this. If you do this, consider contacting your IT department to ask them to fix your VPN configuration to properly declare its DNS routing domains, so you don’t have to fix it manually. (This actually sometimes works!) You might have to do this more than once, if you discover additional domains that need to be resolved by the corporate VPN.

Custom VPN Software

By “custom VPN software,” I mean any VPN that is not a NetworkManager plugin. That includes proprietary VPN applications offered by VPN services, and also packaged software like openvpn or wg-quick, when invoked by something other than NetworkManager.

If your custom VPN software is broken, you could report a bug against your VPN software to ask for support for systemd-resolved, but it’s really best to ditch your custom software and configure your VPN using NetworkManager instead, if possible. There are really only two good reasons to use custom VPN software: if NetworkManager doesn’t have a plugin appropriate for your corporate VPN, or if you need to use Wireguard and your desktop doesn’t support Wireguard yet. (NetworkManager itself supports Wireguard, but GNOME does not yet, because Wireguard is special and not treated the same as other VPNs. Help welcome.)

If you use NetworkManager to configure your VPN, as desktop developers intend for you to do, then NetworkManager will take care of configuring systemd-resolved appropriately. Fedora ships with several NetworkManager VPN plugins installed by default, so the vast majority of VPN users should be able to configure your VPN directly in System Settings. This also allows you to control your VPN using your desktop environment’s VPN integration, rather than using the command line or a custom proprietary application.

OpenVPN users will want to look into using the unofficial update-systemd-resolved script. However, NetworkManager has good support for OpenVPN, and this is totally unnecessary if you configure your VPN with NetworkManager. So it’s probably better to use NetworkManager instead.

Now, what if you maintain custom VPN software and want it to work properly with systemd-resolved, or what if you can’t use NetworkManager for whatever reason? First, stop trying to write to /etc/resolv.conf, at least if it’s managed by systemd-resolved. You’ll instead want to use the systemd-resolved D-Bus API to configure an appropriate routing domain for your VPN interface. Read this documentation. You could also shell out to resolvectl, but it’s probably better to use the D-Bus API unless your VPN is managed by a shell script. Privacy VPNs (or corporate VPNs that wish to eschew split DNS and hijack all the user’s DNS) can also use the resolvconf compatibility script, but note this will only work properly with NetworkManager 1.26.6 and newer, because the best you can do with it is add a global routing domain to a network interface, but that’s not going to work as expected if another network interface already has a global routing domain. Did I mention that you might want to use the D-Bus API instead? With the D-Bus API, you can remove the global routing domain from any other network interfaces, to ensure only your VPN’s interface gets a global routing domain.

Split DNS Without systemd-resolved

Quick tangent: systemd-resolved is not the only software available that implements split DNS. Previously, the most popular solution for this was to use dnsmasq. This has always been available in Fedora, but you had to go out of your way to install and configure it, so almost nobody did. Other custom solutions were possible too — I know one developer who runs Unbound locally — but systemd-resolved and dnsmasq are the only options supported by NetworkManager.

One significant difference between systemd-resolved and dnsmasq is that systemd-resolved, as a system daemon, allows for multiple sources of configuration. In contrast, NetworkManager runs dnsmasq as a subprocess, so only NetworkManager itself is allowed to configure dnsmasq. For most users, this distinction will not matter, but it’s important for custom VPN software.

Servers and DNSSEC

You might have noticed that the rest of this blog post focused pretty much exclusively on desktop use cases. Your server is probably not using a VPN. It’s probably not using mDNS. It’s probably not expected to be able to resolve local hostnames. Conclusion: most servers don’t need split DNS! Servers do benefit from systemd-resolved’s systemwide DNS cache, so running systemd-resolved on servers is still a good idea. But it’s not nearly as important for servers as it is for desktops.

There are some disadvantages for servers as well. First, systemd-resolved is not intended to be used on DNS servers. If you’re running a DNS server, you’ll need to disable systemd-resolved before setting up BIND or Unbound instead. That is one extra step to get your DNS server working relative to before, so enabling systemd-resolved by default is an inconvenience here, but that’s hardly difficult to do, so not a big deal.

However, systemd-resolved currently has several bugs in how it handles DNSSEC, and this is potentially a big deal if you depend on that. If you’re a desktop user, you’ll probably never notice, because DNSSEC on desktops is a total failure. Due to widespread and unfixable compatibility issues, it’s very unlikely that we would be able to enable DNSSEC validation by default in the next 10-15 years. If you have a desktop computer that never leaves your home and a good ISP, or a server sitting in a data center, then you can probably safely turn it on manually in /etc/systemd/resolved.conf, but this is highly inadvisable for laptops. So DNSSEC is currently useful for securing DNS between DNS servers, but not for securing DNS between you devices and your DNS server.  (For that, we plan to use DNS over TLS instead.) And we’ve already established that DNS servers should not use systemd-resolved. So what’s the problem?

Well, it turns out DNS servers are not the only server software that expects DNSSEC to work properly. In particular, broken DNSSEC can result in broken mail servers. Other stuff might break too. If you’re running a server that needs functional DNSSEC, you’re going to need to disable systemd-resolved for now. These problems with DNSSEC resulted in some extremely vocal opposition to the Fedora 33 systemd-resolved change proposal, which unfortunately we didn’t properly appreciate until too late in the Fedora 33 development cycle. The good news is that these problems are being treated as bugs to be fixed. In particular, I am keeping an eye on this bug and this bug. Development is currently very active, so I’m hopeful that systemd-resolved’s DNSSEC support will look much better in time for Fedora 34.

Tell Me More!

Wow, you made it to the end of a long blog post, and you still want to know more? Next step is to read my colleague Zbigniew’s Fedora Magazine article, which describes some of the concepts I’ve already mentioned in greater detail. (However, when reading that article, be aware of the NetworkManager 1.26.6 changes I mentioned above. The article predates NetworkManager 1.26.6, so you will see in the examples that a ~. global routing domain is assigned to non-VPN interfaces. That will no longer happen.)

Conclusion

Split DNS is designed to just work, like the rest of the modern Linux desktop, and it should for everyone not using custom VPN software. If you do run into trouble with custom VPN software, the bottom line is to try using a NetworkManager VPN plugin instead, if possible. In the short term, you will also need to disable systemd-resolved if you depend on DNSSEC, but hopefully that won’t be necessary for much longer. Everyone else should hopefully never notice that systemd-resolved is there.

Happy resolving!

Accurate Conclusions from Bogus Data: Methodological Issues in “Collaboration in the open-source arena: The WebKit case”

Nearly five years ago, when I was in grad school, I stumbled across the paper Collaboration in the open-source arena: The WebKit case when trying to figure out what I would do for a course project in network theory (i.e. graph theory, not computer networking; I’ll use the words “graph” and “network” interchangeably). The paper evaluates collaboration networks, which are graphs where collaborators are represented by nodes and relationships between collaborators are represented by edges. Our professor had used collaboration networks as examples during lecture, so it seemed at least mildly relevant to our class, and I wound up writing a critique on this paper for the class project. In this paper, the authors construct collaboration networks for WebKit by examining the project’s changelog files to define relationships between developers. They perform “community detection” to visually group developers who work closely together into separate clusters in the graphs. Then, the authors use those graphs to arrive at various conclusions about WebKit (e.g. “[e]ven if Samsung and Apple are involved in expensive patent wars in the courts and stopped collaborating on hardware components, their contributions remained strong and central within the WebKit open source project,” regarding the period from 2008 to 2013).

At the time, I contacted the authors to let them know about some serious problems I found with their work. Then I left the paper sitting in a short-term to-do pile on my desk, where it has been sitting since Obama was president, waiting for me to finally write this blog post. Unfortunately, nearly five years later, the authors’ email addresses no longer work, which is not very surprising after so long — since I’m no longer a student, the email I originally used to contact them doesn’t work anymore either — so I was unable to contact them again to let them know that I was finally going to publish this blog post. Anyway, suffice to say that the conclusions of the paper were all correct; however, the networks used to arrive at those conclusions suffered from three different mistakes, each of which was, on its own, serious enough to invalidate the entire work.

So if the analysis of the networks was bogus, how did the authors arrive at correct conclusions anyway? The answer is confirmation bias. The study was performed by visually looking at networks and then coming to non-rigorous conclusions about the networks, and by researching the WebKit community to learn what is going on with the major companies involved in the project. The authors arrived at correct conclusions because they did a good job at the later, then saw what they wanted to see in the graphs.

I don’t want to be too harsh on the authors of this paper, though, because they decided to publish their raw data and methodology on the internet. They even published the python scripts they used to convert WebKit changelogs into collaboration graphs. Had they not done so, there is no way I would have noticed the third (and most important) mistake that I’ll discuss below, and I wouldn’t have been able to confirm my suspicions about the second mistake. You would not be reading this right now, and likely nobody would ever have realized the problems with the paper. The authors of most scientific papers are not nearly so transparent: many researchers today consider their source code and raw data to be either proprietary secrets to be guarded, or simply not important enough to merit publication. The authors of this paper deserve to be commended, not penalized, for their openness. Mistakes are normal in research papers, and open data is by far the best way for us to be able to detect mistakes when they happen.

Collaboration network
A collaboration network from the paper. The paper reports that this network represents collaboration between September 2008 (when Google began contributing to WebKit) and February 2011 (the departure of Nokia from the project). Because the authors posted their data online, I noticed that this was a mistake in the paper: the graph actually represents the period between February 2011 and July 2012. The paper’s analysis of this graph is therefore questionable, but note this was only a minor mistake compared to the three major mistakes that impact this network. Note the suspiciously-high number of unaffiliated (“Other”) contributors in a corporate-dominated project.

The rest of this blog post is a simplified version of my original school paper from 2016. I’ve removed maybe half the original content, including some flowery academic language and unnecessary references to class material (e.g. “community detection was performed using fast modularity maximization to generate an alternate visualization of the network,” good for high scores on class papers, not so good for blog posts). But rewriting everything to be informal takes a long time, and I want to finish this today so it’s not still on my desk five more years from now, so the rest of this blog post is still going to be much more formal than normal. Oh well. Tone shift now!

We (“we” means “I”) examine various methodological issues discovered by analyzing the paper. The first section discusses the effects on the collaboration network of choosing a poor definition of collaboration. The second section discusses a major source of error in detecting the company affiliation of many contributors. The third section describes a serious mistake in the data collection process. Each of these issues is quite severe, and any one alone calls into question the validity of the entire study. It must be noted that such issues are not necessarily unique to this paper, and must be kept in mind for all future studies that utilize collaboration networks.

Mistake #1: Poorly-defined Collaboration

The precise definition used to model collaboration has tremendous impact on the usefulness of the resultant collaboration network. Many collaboration networks are built using definitions of collaboration that are self-evidently useful, where there is little doubt that edges in the network represent real-world collaboration. The paper adopts an approach to building collaboration networks where developers are represented by nodes, and an edge exists between two nodes if the corresponding developers modified the same source code file during the time period under consideration for the construction of the network. However, it is not clear that this definition of collaboration is actually useful. Consider that it is a regular occurrence for developers who do not know each other and may have never communicated to modify the same files. Consider also that modifying a common file does not necessarily reflect any shared interest in a particular portion of the software project. For instance, a file might be modified when making an interface change in another file, or when fixing a build error occurring on a particular platform. Such occurrences are, in fact, extremely common in the WebKit project. Additionally, consider that there exist particular source code files that are unusually central to the project, and must be modified more frequently than other files. It is highly likely that almost all developers will at one point or another make some change in such a file, and therefore be connected via a collaboration edge to all other developers who have ever modified that file. (My original critique shows a screenshot of the revision history of WebPageProxy.cpp, to demonstrate that the developers modifying this file were working on unrelated projects.)

It is true, as assumed by the paper, that particular developers work on different portions of the WebKit source code, and collaborate more with particular other developers. For instance, developers who work for the same company typically, though not always, collaborate most with other developers from that same company. However, the paper’s naive definition of collaboration should ensure that most developers will be considered to have collaborated equally with most other developers, regardless of the actual degree of collaboration. For instance, consider developers A and B who regularly collaborate on a particular source file. Now, developer C, who works on a platform that does not use this file and would not ordinarily need to modify it, makes a change to some cross-platform interface in another file that requires updating this file. Developer C is now considered to have collaborated with developers A and B on this file! Clearly, this is not a desirable result, as developers A and B have collaborated far more on the development of the file. Moreover, consider that an edge exists between two developers in the collaboration network if they have ever both modified any file anywhere in WebKit during the time period under review; then we can expect to form a network that is almost complete (a “full” graph where edges exists between most nodes). It is evident that some method of weighting collaboration between different contributors would be desirable, as the unweighted collaboration network does not seem useful.

One might argue that the networks presented in the paper clearly show developers exist in subcommunities on the peripheries of the network, that the network is clearly not complete, and that therefore this definition of collaboration sufficed, at least to some extent. However, this is only due to another methodological error in the study. Mistake #3, discussed later, explains how the study managed to produce collaboration networks with noticeable subcommunities despite these issues.

We note that the authors chose this same definition of collaboration in their more recent work on OpenStack, so there exist multiple studies using this same flawed definition of collaboration. We speculate that this definition of collaboration is unlikely to be more suitable for OpenStack or for other software projects than it is for WebKit. The software engineering research community must explore alternative models of collaboration when undertaking future studies of software development collaboration networks in order to more accurately reflect collaboration.

Mistake #2: Misdetected Contributor Affiliation

One difficulty when building collaboration networks is the need to correctly match each contributor with the correct company affiliation. Although many free software projects are dominated by unaffiliated contributors, others, like WebKit, are primarily developed by paid contributors. Looking at the number of times a particular email domain appears in WebKit changelog entries made during 2015, most contributors commit using corporate emails, but many developers commit to WebKit using personal email accounts, such as Gmail accounts; additionally, many developers use generic webkit.org email aliases, which were previously available to active WebKit contributors. These developers may or may not be affiliated with companies that contribute to the project. Use of personal email addresses is a source of inaccuracy when constructing collaboration networks, as it results in an undercount of corporate contributions.  We can expect this issue has led to serious inaccuracies in the reported collaboration networks.

This substantial source of error is neither mentioned nor accounted for; all contributors using such email accounts were therefore miscategorized as unaffiliated. However, the authors clearly recognized this issue, as it has been accounted for in their more recent work covering OpenStack by cross-referencing email addresses from git revision history with a database containing corporate affiliations maintained by the OpenStack Foundation. Unfortunately, no such effort was made for the WebKit data set.

The WebKit project was previously dominated by contributors with chromium.org email domains. This domain is equivalent to webkit.org in that it can be used by contributors to the Chromium project regardless of corporate affiliation; however, most contributors with Chromium emails are actually Google employees. The high use of Chromium emails by Google employees appears to have led to a dramatic — by roughly an entire order of magnitude — undercount of Google’s contributors to the WebKit project, as only contributors with google.com emails were considered to be Google employees. The vast majority of Google employees used chromium.org emails, and so were counted as unaffiliated developers. This explains the extraordinarily high number of unaffiliated developers in the networks presented by the paper, despite the fact that WebKit development is, in reality, dominated by corporate contributors.

Mistake #3: Missing Most Changelog Data

The paper incorrectly claims to have gathered its data from both WebKit’s Subversion revision history and from its changelog files. We must draw a distinction between changelog entries and Subversion revision history. Changelog entries are inserted into changelog files that are committed into the Subversion repository; they are completely separate from the Subversion history. Each subproject within the WebKit project has its own set of changelog files used to record changes under the corresponding directory.

In fact, the paper processed only the changelog files. This was actually a good choice, as WebKit’s changelog files are much more accurate than the Subversion history, for two reasons. Firstly, it is easy for a contributor to change the email address entered into a changelog file, e.g. after a change in company affiliation. However, it is difficult to change the email address used to commit to Subversion, as this requires requesting a new Subversion account from the Subversion administrator; accordingly, contributors are more likely to use older email addresses, lacking accurate company affiliation, in Subversion revisions than in changelog files.  Secondly, many Subversion revisions are not directly committed by contributors, but rather are actually committed by the commit queue bot, which runs various tests before committing the revision. Subversion revisions are also, more rarely, committed by a completely different contributor than the patch author. In both cases, the proper contributor’s name will appear in only the changelog file, and not the Subversion data. Some developers are dramatically more likely to use the commit queue than others. Various other reviews of WebKit contribution history that examine data from Subversion history rather than from changelog files are flawed for this reason. Fortunately, by relying on changelog files rather than Subversion metadata, the authors avoid this problem.

Unfortunately, a serious error was made in processing the changelog data. WebKit has many different sets of changelog files, stored in various project subdirectories (JavaScriptCore, WebCore, WebKit, etc.), as well as toplevel changelogs stored in the root directory of the project. Regrettably, the authors were unaware of the changelogs in subdirectories, and based their analysis only on the toplevel changelogs, which contain only changes that occurred in subdirectories that lack their own changelog files. In practice, this inadvertently restricted the scope of the analysis to a very small minority of changes, primarily to build system files, manual tests, and the WebKit website. That is, the reported collaboration networks do not reflect collaboration on any actual source code files. All source code files are contained in subdirectories with their own changelog files, and therefore no source code files were actually considered in the analysis of collaboration on source code changes.

We speculate that the analysis’s focus on build system files likely exaggerates the effects of clustering in the network, as different companies used different build systems and thus were less likely to edit the build systems used by other companies, and that an analysis based on the correct data would display less of a clustering effect. Certainly, there would be dramatically more edges in the already-dense networks, because an edge exists between two developers if there exists any one file in WebKit that both developers have modified. Omitting all of the source code files from the analysis therefore dramatically reduces the likelihood of edges existing between nodes in the network.

Conclusion

We found that the original study was impacted by an unsuitable definition of collaboration used to build the collaboration networks, severe errors in counting contributor affiliation (including the classification of most Google employees as unaffiliated developers), and the omission of almost all the required data from the analysis, including all data on modifications to source code files. The authors constructed and studied essentially meaningless networks. Nevertheless, the authors were able to derive many accurate conclusions about the WebKit project from their inaccurate collaboration networks. Such conclusions illustrate the dangers of seeking to find particular meanings or explanations through visual inspection of collaboration networks. Researchers must work forwards from the collaboration networks to arrive at their conclusions, rather than backwards by attempting to match the networks to conclusions gained from prior knowledge.

Original Report

Wow, OK, you actually read this far? Since this blog post criticizes an academic paper, and since this blog post does not include various tables and examples that support my arguments, I’ve attached my original analysis in full. It is a boring, student-quality grad school project written with the objective of scoring the highest-possible grade in a class rather than for clarity, and you probably don’t want to look at it unless you are investigating the paper in detail. (If you download that, note that I no longer work for Igalia, and the paper was not authorized by Igalia either; I used my company email to disclose my affiliation and maybe impress my professor a little.) Phew, now I can finally remove this from my desk!

Epiphany 3.38 and WebKitGTK 2.30

It’s that time of year again: a new GNOME release, and with it, a new Epiphany. The pace of Epiphany development has increased significantly over the last few years thanks to an increase in the number of active contributors. Most notably, Jan-Michael Brummer has solved dozens of bugs and landed many new enhancements, Alexander Mikhaylenko has polished numerous rough edges throughout the browser, and Andrei Lisita has landed several significant improvements to various Epiphany dialogs. That doesn’t count the work that Igalia is doing to maintain WebKitGTK, the WPE graphics stack, and libsoup, all of which is essential to delivering quality Epiphany releases, nor the work of the GNOME localization teams to translate it to your native language. Even if Epiphany itself is only the topmost layer of this technology stack, having more developers working on Epiphany itself allows us to deliver increased polish throughout the user interface layer, and I’m pretty happy with the result. Let’s take a look at what’s new.

Intelligent Tracking Prevention

Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) is the headline feature of this release. Safari has had ITP for several years now, so if you’re familiar with how ITP works to prevent cross-site tracking on macOS or iOS, then you already know what to expect here.  If you’re more familiar with Firefox’s Enhanced Tracking Protection, or Chrome’s nothing (crickets: chirp, chirp!), then WebKit’s ITP is a little different from what you’re used to. ITP relies on heuristics that apply the same to all domains, so there are no blocklists of naughty domains that should be targeted for content blocking like you see in Firefox. Instead, a set of innovative restrictions is applied globally to all web content, and a separate set of stricter restrictions is applied to domains classified as “prevalent” based on your browsing history. Domains are classified as prevalent if ITP decides the domain is capable of tracking your browsing across the web, or non-prevalent otherwise. (The public-friendly terminology for this is “Classification as Having Cross-Site Tracking Capabilities,” but that is a mouthful, so I’ll stick with “prevalent.” It makes sense: domains that are common across many websites can track you across many websites, and domains that are not common cannot.)

ITP is enabled by default in Epiphany 3.38, as it has been for several years now in Safari, because otherwise only a small minority of users would turn it on. ITP protections are designed to be effective without breaking too many websites, so it’s fairly safe to enable by default. (You may encounter a few broken websites that have not been updated to use the Storage Access API to store third-party cookies. If so, you can choose to turn off ITP in the preferences dialog.)

For a detailed discussion covering ITP’s tracking mitigations, see Tracking Prevention in WebKit. I’m not an expert myself, but the short version is this: full third-party cookie blocking across all websites (to store a third-party cookie, websites must use the Storage Access API to prompt the user for permission); cookie-blocking latch mode (“once a request is blocked from using cookies, all redirects of that request are also blocked from using cookies”); downgraded third-party referrers (“all third-party referrers are downgraded to their origins by default”) to avoid exposing the path component of the URL in the referrer; blocked third-party HSTS (“HSTS […] can only be set by the first-party website […]”) to stop abuse by tracker scripts; detection of cross-site tracking via link decoration and 24-hour expiration time for all cookies created by JavaScript on the landing page when detected; a 7-day expiration time for all other cookies created by JavaScript (yes, this applies to first-party cookies); and a 7-day extendable lifetime for all other script-writable storage, extended whenever the user interacts with the website (necessary because tracking companies began using first-party scripts to evade the above restrictions). Additionally, for prevalent domains only, domains engaging in bounce tracking may have cookies forced to SameSite=strict, and Verified Partitioned Cache is enabled (cached resources are re-downloaded after seven days and deleted if they fail certain privacy tests). Whew!

WebKit has many additional privacy protections not tied to the ITP setting and therefore not discussed here — did you know that cached resources are partioned based on the first-party domain? — and there’s more that’s not very well documented which I don’t understand and haven’t mentioned (tracker collusion!), but that should give you the general idea of how sophisticated this is relative to, say, Chrome (chirp!). Thanks to John Wilander from Apple for his work developing and maintaining ITP, and to Carlos Garcia for getting it working on Linux. If you’re interested in the full history of how ITP has evolved over the years to respond to the changing threat landscape (e.g. tracking prevention tracking), see John’s WebKit blog posts. You might also be interested in WebKit’s Tracking Prevention Policy, which I believe is the strictest anti-tracking stance of any major web engine. TL;DR: “we treat circumvention of shipping anti-tracking measures with the same seriousness as exploitation of security vulnerabilities. If a party attempts to circumvent our tracking prevention methods, we may add additional restrictions without prior notice.” No exceptions.

Updated Website Data Preferences

As part of the work on ITP, you’ll notice that Epiphany’s cookie storage preferences have changed a bit. Since ITP enforces full third-party cookie blocking, it no longer makes sense to have a separate cookie storage preference for that, so I replaced the old tri-state cookie storage setting (always accept cookies, block third-party cookies, block all cookies) with two switches: one to toggle ITP, and one to toggle all website data storage.

Previously, it was only possible to block cookies, but this new setting will additionally block localStorage and IndexedDB, web features that allow websites to store arbitrary data in your browser, similar to cookies. It doesn’t really make much sense to block cookies but allow other types of data storage, so the new preferences should better enforce the user’s intent behind disabling cookies. (This preference does not yet block media keys, service workers, or legacy offline web application cache, but it probably should.) I don’t really recommend disabling website data storage, since it will cause compatibility issues on many websites, but this option is there for those who want it. Disabling ITP is also not something I want to recommend, but it might be necessary to access certain broken websites that have not yet been updated to use the Storage Access API.

Accordingly, Andrei has removed the old cookies dialog and moved cookie management into the Clear Personal Data dialog, which is a better place because anyone clearing cookies for a particular website is likely to also want to clear other personal data. (If you want to delete a website’s cookies, then you probably don’t want to leave its SQL databases intact, right?) He had to remove the ability to clear data from a particular point in time, because WebKit doesn’t support this operation for cookies, but that function is probably  rarely-used and I think the benefit of the change should outweigh the cost. (We could bring it back in the future if somebody wants to try implementing that feature in WebKit, but I suspect not many users will notice.) Treating cookies as separate and different from other forms of website data storage no longer makes sense in 2020, and it’s good to have finally moved on from that antiquated practice.

New HTML Theme

Carlos Garcia has added a new Adwaita-based HTML theme to WebKitGTK 2.30, and removed support for rendering HTML elements using the GTK theme (except for scrollbars). Trying to use the GTK theme to render web content was fragile and caused many web compatibility problems that nobody ever managed to solve. The GTK developers were never very fond of us doing this in the first place, and the foreign drawing API required to do so has been removed from GTK 4, so this was also good preparation for getting WebKitGTK ready for GTK 4. Carlos’s new theme is similar to Adwaita, but gradients have been toned down or removed in order to give a flatter, neutral look that should blend in nicely with all pages while still feeling modern.

This should be a fairly minor style change for Adwaita users, but a very large change for anyone using custom themes. I don’t expect everyone will be happy, but please trust that this will at least result in better web compatibility and fewer tricky theme-related bug reports.

Screenshot demonstrating new HTML theme vs. GTK theme
Left: Adwaita GTK theme controls rendered by WebKitGTK 2.28. Right: hardcoded Adwaita-based HTML theme with toned down gradients.

Although scrollbars will still use the GTK theme as of WebKitGTK 2.30, that will no longer be possible to do in GTK 4, so themed scrollbars are almost certain to be removed in the future. That will be a noticeable disappointment in every app that uses WebKitGTK, but I don’t see any likely solution to this.

Media Permissions

Jan-Michael added new API in WebKitGTK 2.30 to allow muting individual browser tabs, and hooked it up in Epiphany. This is good when you want to silence just one annoying tab without silencing everything.

Meanwhile, Charlie Turner added WebKitGTK API for managing autoplay policies. Videos with sound are now blocked from autoplaying by default, while videos with no sound are still allowed. Charlie hooked this up to Epiphany’s existing permission manager popover, so you can change the behavior for websites you care about without affecting other websites.

Screenshot displaying new media autoplay permission settings
Configure your preferred media autoplay policy for a website near you today!

Improved Dialogs

In addition to his work on the Clear Data dialog, Andrei has also implemented many improvements and squashed bugs throughout each view of the preferences dialog, the passwords dialog, and the history dialog, and refactored the code to be much more maintainable. Head over to his blog to learn more about his accomplishments. (Thanks to Google for sponsoring Andrei’s work via Google Summer of Code, and to Alexander for help mentoring.)

Additionally, Adrien Plazas has ported the preferences dialog to use HdyPreferencesWindow, bringing a pretty major design change to the view switcher:

Screenshot showing changes to the preferences dialog
Left: Epiphany 3.36 preferences dialog. Right: Epiphany 3.38. Note the download settings are present in the left screenshot but missing from the right screenshot because the right window is using flatpak, and the download settings are unavailable in flatpak.

User Scripts

User scripts (like Greasemonkey) allow you to run custom JavaScript on websites. WebKit has long offered user script functionality alongside user CSS, but previous versions of Epiphany only exposed user CSS. Jan-Michael has added the ability to configure a user script as well. To enable, visit the Appearance tab in the preferences dialog (a somewhat odd place, but it really needs to be located next to user CSS due to the tight relationship there). Besides allowing you to do, well, basically anything, this also significantly enhances the usability of user CSS, since now you can apply certain styles only to particular websites. The UI is a little primitive — your script (like your CSS) has to be one file that will be run on every website, so don’t try to design a complex codebase using your user script — but you can use conditional statements to limit execution to specific websites as you please, so it should work fairly well for anyone who has need of it. I fully expect 99.9% of users will never touch user scripts or user styles, but it’s nice for power users to have these features available if needed.

HTTP Authentication Password Storage

Jan-Michael and Carlos Garcia have worked to ensure HTTP authentication passwords are now stored in Epiphany’s password manager rather than by WebKit, so they can now be viewed and deleted from Epiphany, which required some new WebKitGTK API to do properly. Unfortunately, WebKitGTK saves network passwords using the default network secret schema, meaning its passwords (saved by older versions of Epiphany) are all leaked: we have no way to know which application owns those passwords, so we don’t have any way to know which passwords were stored by WebKit and which can be safely managed by Epiphany going forward. Accordingly, all previously-stored HTTP authentication passwords are no longer accessible; you’ll have to use seahorse to look them up manually if you need to recover them. HTTP authentication is not very commonly-used nowadays except for internal corporate domains, so hopefully this one-time migration snafu will not be a major inconvenience to most users.

New Tab Animation

Jan-Michael has added a new animation when you open a new tab. If the newly-created tab is not visible in the tab bar, then the right arrow will flash to indicate success, letting you know that you actually managed to open the page. Opening tabs out of view happens too often currently, but at least it’s a nice improvement over not knowing whether you actually managed to open the tab or not. This will be improved further next year, because Alexander is working on a completely new tab widget to replace GtkNotebook.

New View Source Theme

Jim Mason changed view source mode to use a highlight.js theme designed to mimic Firefox’s syntax highlighting, and added dark mode support.

Image showing dark mode support in view source mode
Embrace the dark.

And More…

  • WebKitGTK 2.30 now supports video formats in image elements, thanks to Philippe Normand. You’ll notice that short GIF-style videos will now work on several major websites where they previously didn’t.
  • I added a new WebKitGTK 2.30 API to expose the paste as plaintext editor command, which was previously internal but fully-functional. I’ve hooked it up in Epiphany’s context menu as “Paste Text Only.” This is nice when you want to discard markup when pasting into a rich text editor (such as the WordPress editor I’m using to write this post).
  • Jan-Michael has implemented support for reordering pinned tabs. You can now drag to reorder pinned tabs any way you please, subject to the constraint that all pinned tabs stay left of all unpinned tabs.
  • Jan-Michael added a new import/export menu, and the bookmarks import/export features have moved there. He also added a new feature to import passwords from Chrome. Meanwhile, ignapk added support for importing bookmarks from HTML (compatible with Firefox).
  • Jan-Michael added a new preference to web apps to allow running them in the background. When enabled, closing the window will only hide the the window: everything will continue running. This is useful for mail apps, music players, and similar applications.
  • Continuing Jan-Michael’s list of accomplishments, he removed Epiphany’s previous hidden setting to set a mobile user agent header after discovering that it did not work properly, and replaced it by adding support in WebKitGTK 2.30 for automatically setting a mobile user agent header depending on the chassis type detected by logind. This results in a major user experience improvement when using Epiphany as a mobile browser. Beware: this functionality currently does not work in flatpak because it requires the creation of a new desktop portal.
  • Stephan Verbücheln has landed multiple fixes to improve display of favicons on hidpi displays.
  • Zach Harbort fixed a rounding error that caused the zoom level to display oddly when changing zoom levels.
  • Vanadiae landed some improvements to the search engine configuration dialog (with more to come) and helped investigate a crash that occurs when using the “Set as Wallpaper” function under Flatpak. The crash is pretty tricky, so we wound up disabling that function under Flatpak for now. He also updated screenshots throughout the  user help.
  • Sabri Ünal continued his effort to document and standardize keyboard shortcuts throughout GNOME, adding a few missing shortcuts to the keyboard shortcuts dialog.

Epiphany 3.38 will be the final Epiphany 3 release, concluding a decade of releases that start with 3. We will match GNOME in following a new version scheme going forward, dropping the leading 3 and the confusing even/odd versioning. Onward to Epiphany 40!

Disrupted CVE Assignment Process

Due to an invalid TLS certificate on MITRE’s CVE request form, I have — ironically — been unable to request a new CVE for a TLS certificate verification vulnerability for a couple weeks now. (Note: this vulnerability does not affect WebKit and I’m only aware of one vulnerable application, so impact is limited; follow the link if you’re curious.) MITRE, if you’re reading my blog, your website’s contact form promises a two-day response, but it’s been almost three weeks now, still waiting.

Update May 29: I received a response today stating my request has been forwarded to MITRE’s IT department, and less than an hour later the issue is now fixed. I guess that’s score +1 for blog posts. Thanks for fixing this, MITRE.

Browser security warning on MITRE's CVE request form

Of course, the issue is exactly the same as it was five years ago, the server is misconfigured to send only the final server certificate with no chain of trust, guaranteeing failure in Epiphany or with command-line tools. But the site does work in Chrome, and sometimes works in Firefox… what’s going on? Again, same old story. Firefox is accepting incomplete certificate chains based on which websites you’ve visited in the past, so you might be able to get to the CVE request form or not depending on which websites you’ve previously visited in Firefox, but a fresh profile won’t work. Chrome has started downloading the missing intermediate certificate automatically from the issuer, which Firefox refuses to implement for fear of allowing the certificate authority to track which websites you’re visiting. Eventually, we’ll hopefully have this feature in GnuTLS, because Firefox-style nondeterministic certificate verification is nuts and we have to do one or the other to be web-compatible, but for now that is not supported and we reject the certificate. (I fear I may have delayed others from implementing the GnuTLS support by promising to implement it myself and then never delivering… sorry.)

We could have a debate on TLS certificate verification and the various benefits or costs of the Firefox vs. Chrome approach, but in the end it’s an obvious misconfiguration and there will be no further CVE requests from me until it’s fixed. (Update May 29: the issue is now fixed. :) No, I’m not bypassing the browser security warning, even though I know exactly what’s wrong. We can’t expect users to take these seriously if we skip them ourselves.

Patching Vendored Rust Dependencies

Recently I had a difficult time trying to patch a CVE in librsvg. The issue itself was simple to patch because Federico kindly backported the series of commits required to fix it to the branch we are using downstream. Problem was, one of the vendored deps in the old librsvg tarball did not build with our modern rustc, because the code contained a borrow error that was not caught by older versions of rustc. After finding the appropriate upstream fix, I tried naively patching the vendored dep, but that failed because cargo tries very hard to prevent you from patching its dependencies, and complains if the dependency does not match its checksum in Cargo.lock. I tried modifying the checksum in Cargo.lock, but then it complains that you modified the Cargo.lock. It seems cargo is designed to make patching dependencies as difficult as possible, and that not much thought was put into how cargo would be used from rpmbuild with no network access.

Anyway, it seems the kosher way to patch Rust dependencies is to add a [patch] section to librsvg’s Cargo.toml, but I could not figure out how to make that work. Eventually, I got some help: you can edit the .cargo-checksum.json of the vendored dependency and change “files” to an empty array, like so:

diff --git a/vendor/cssparser/.cargo-checksum.json b/vendor/cssparser/.cargo-checksum.json
index 246bb70..713372d 100644
--- a/vendor/cssparser/.cargo-checksum.json
+++ b/vendor/cssparser/.cargo-checksum.json
@@ -1 +1 @@
-{"files":{".cargo-ok":"e3b0c44298fc1c149afbf4c8996fb92427ae41e4649b934ca495991b7852b855",".travis.yml":"f1fb4b65964c81bc1240544267ea334f554ca38ae7a74d57066f4d47d2b5d568","Cargo.toml":"7807f16d417eb1a6ede56cd4ba2da6c5c63e4530289b3f0848f4b154e18eba02","LICENSE":"fab3dd6bdab226f1c08630b1dd917e11fcb4ec5e1e020e2c16f83a0a13863e85","README.md":"c5781e673335f37ed3d7acb119f8ed33efdf6eb75a7094b7da2abe0c3230adb8","build.rs":"b29fc57747f79914d1c2fb541e2bb15a003028bb62751dcb901081ccc174b119","build/match_byte.rs":"2c84b8ca5884347d2007f49aecbd85b4c7582085526e2704399817249996e19b","docs/.nojekyll":"e3b0c44298fc1c149afbf4c8996fb92427ae41e4649b934ca495991b7852b855","docs/404.html":"025861f76f8d1f6d67c20ab624c6e418f4f824385e2dd8ad8732c4ea563c6a2e","docs/index.html":"025861f76f8d1f6d67c20ab624c6e418f4f824385e2dd8ad8732c4ea563c6a2e","src/color.rs":"c60f1b0ab7a2a6213e434604ee33f78e7ef74347f325d86d0b9192d8225ae1cc","src/cow_rc_str.rs":"541216f8ef74ee3cc5cbbc1347e5f32ed66588c401851c9a7d68b867aede1de0","src/from_bytes.rs":"331fe63af2123ae3675b61928a69461b5ac77799fff3ce9978c55cf2c558f4ff","src/lib.rs":"46c377e0c9a75780d5cb0bcf4dfb960f0fb2a996a13e7349bb111b9082252233","src/macros.rs":"adb9773c157890381556ea83d7942dcc676f99eea71abbb6afeffee1e3f28960","src/nth.rs":"5c70fb542d1376cddab69922eeb4c05e4fcf8f413f27563a2af50f72a47c8f8c","src/parser.rs":"9ed4aec998221eb2d2ba99db2f9f82a02399fb0c3b8500627f68f5aab872adde","src/rules_and_declarations.rs":"be2c4f3f3bb673d866575b6cb6084f1879dff07356d583ca9a3595f63b7f916f","src/serializer.rs":"4ccfc9b4fe994aab3803662bbf31cc25052a6a39531073a867b14b224afe42dd","src/size_of_tests.rs":"e5f63c8c18721cc3ff7a5407e84f9889ffa10e66da96e8510a696c3e00ad72d5","src/tests.rs":"80b02c80ab0fd580dad9206615c918e0db7dff63dfed0feeedb66f317d24b24b","src/tokenizer.rs":"429b2cba419cf8b923fbcc32d3bd34c0b39284ebfcb9fc29b8eb8643d8d5f312","src/unicode_range.rs":"c1c4ed2493e09d248c526ce1ef8575a5f8258da3962b64ffc814ef3bdf9780d0"},"package":"8a807ac3ab7a217829c2a3b65732b926b2befe6a35f33b4bf8b503692430f223"}
\ No newline at end of file
+{"files":{},"package":"8a807ac3ab7a217829c2a3b65732b926b2befe6a35f33b4bf8b503692430f223"}

Then cargo will stop complaining and you can patch the dependency. Success!

Sandboxing WebKitGTK Apps

When you connect to a Wi-Fi network, that network might block your access to the wider internet until you’ve signed into the network’s captive portal page. An untrusted network can disrupt your connection at any time by blocking secure requests and replacing the content of insecure requests with its login page. (Of course this can be done on wired networks as well, but in practice it mainly happens on Wi-Fi.) To detect a captive portal, NetworkManager sends a request to a special test address (e.g. http://fedoraproject.org/static/hotspot.txt) and checks to see whether it the content has been replaced. If so, GNOME Shell will open a little WebKitGTK browser window to display http://nmcheck.gnome.org, which, due to the captive portal, will be hijacked by your hotel or airport or whatever to display the portal login page. Rephrased in security lingo: an untrusted network may cause GNOME Shell to load arbitrary web content whenever it wants. If that doesn’t immediately sound dangerous to you, let’s ask me from four years ago why that might be bad:

Web engines are full of security vulnerabilities, like buffer overflows and use-after-frees. The details don’t matter; what’s important is that skilled attackers can turn these vulnerabilities into exploits, using carefully-crafted HTML to gain total control of your user account on your computer (or your phone). They can then install malware, read all the files in your home directory, use your computer in a botnet to attack websites, and do basically whatever they want with it.

If the web engine is sandboxed, then a second type of attack, called a sandbox escape, is needed. This makes it dramatically more difficult to exploit vulnerabilities.

The captive portal helper will pop up and load arbitrary web content without user interaction, so there’s nothing you as a user could possibly do about it. This makes it a tempting target for attackers, so we want to ensure that users are safe in the absence of a sandbox escape. Accordingly, beginning with GNOME 3.36, the captive portal helper is now sandboxed.

How did we do it? With basically one line of code (plus a check to ensure the WebKitGTK version is new enough). To sandbox any WebKitGTK app, just call webkit_web_context_set_sandbox_enabled(). Ta-da, your application is now magically secure!

No, really, that’s all you need to do. So if it’s that simple, why isn’t the sandbox enabled by default? It can break applications that use WebKitWebExtension to run custom code in the sandboxed web process, so you’ll need to test to ensure that your application still works properly after enabling the sandbox. (The WebKitGTK sandbox will become mandatory in the future when porting applications to GTK 4. That’s thinking far ahead, though, because GTK 4 isn’t supported yet at all.) You may need to use webkit_web_context_add_path_to_sandbox() to give your web extension access to directories that would otherwise be blocked by the sandbox.

The sandbox is critically important for web browsers and email clients, which are constantly displaying untrusted web content. But really, every app should enable it. Fix your apps! Then thank Patrick Griffis from Igalia for developing WebKitGTK’s sandbox, and the bubblewrap, Flatpak, and xdg-desktop-portal developers for providing the groundwork that makes it all possible.

Epiphany 3.36 and WebKitGTK 2.28

So, what’s new in Epiphany 3.36?

PDF.js

Once upon a time, beginning with GNOME 3.14, Epiphany had supported displaying PDF documents via the Evince NPAPI browser plugin developed by Carlos Garcia Campos. Unfortunately, because NPAPI plugins have to use X11-specific APIs to draw web content, this didn’t  suffice for very long. When GNOME switched to Wayland by default in GNOME 3.24 (yes, that was three years ago!), this functionality was left behind. Using an NPAPI plugin also meant the code was inherently unsandboxable and tied to a deprecated technology. Epiphany disabled support for NPAPI plugins by default in Epiphany 3.30, hiding the functionality behind a hidden setting, which has now finally been removed for Epiphany 3.36, killing off NPAPI for good.

Jan-Michael Brummer, who comaintains Epiphany with me, tried bringing back PDF support for Epiphany 3.34 using libevince, but eventually we decided to give up on this approach due to difficulty solving some user experience issues. Also, the rendering occurred in the unsandboxed UI process, which was again not good for security.

But PDF support is now back in Epiphany 3.36, and much better than before! Thanks to Jan-Michael, Epiphany now supports displaying PDFs using the amazing PDF.js. We are thankful for Mozilla’s work in developing PDF.js and open sourcing it for us to use. Viewing PDFs in Epiphany using PDF.js is more convenient than downloading them and opening them in Evince, and because the PDF is rendered in the sandboxed web process, using web technologies rather than poppler, it’s also approximately one bazillion times more secure.

Screenshot of Epiphany displaying a PDF document
Look, it’s a PDF!

One limitation of PDF.js is that it does not support forms. If you need to fill out PDF forms, you’ll need to download the PDF and open it in Evince, just as you would if using Firefox.

Dark Mode

Thanks to Carlos Garcia, it should finally be possible to use Epiphany with dark GTK themes. WebKitGTK has historically rendered HTML elements using the GTK theme, which has not been good for users of dark themes, which broke badly on many websites, usually due to dark text being drawn on dark backgrounds or various other problems with unexpected dark widgets. Since WebKitGTK 2.28, WebKit will try to manually change to a light GTK theme when it thinks a dark theme is in use, then use the light theme to render web content. (This work has actually been backported to WebKitGTK 2.26.4, so you don’t need to upgrade to WebKitGTK 2.28 to benefit, but the work landed very recently and we haven’t blogged about it yet.) Thanks to Cassidy James from elementary for providing example pages for testing dark mode behavior.

Screenshot demonstrating broken dark mode support
Broken dark mode support prior to WebKitGTK 2.26.4. Notice that the first two pages use dark color schemes when light color schemes are expected, and the dark blue links are hard to read over the dark gray background. Also notice that the text in the second image is unreadable.
Screenshot demonstrating fixed dark mode support in WebKitGTK 2.26.4
Since WebKitGTK 2.26.4, dark mode works as it does in most other browsers. Websites that don’t support dark mode are light, and websites that do support dark mode are dark. Widgets themed using GTK are always light.

Since Carlos had already added support for the prefers-color-scheme media query last year, this now gets us up to dark mode parity with most browsers, except, notably, Safari. Unlike other browsers, Safari allows websites to opt-in to rendering dark system widgets, like WebKitGTK used to do before these changes. Whether to support this in WebKitGTK remains to-be-determined.

Process Swap on Navigation (PSON)

PSON, which debuted in Safari 13, is a major change in WebKit’s process model. PSON is the first component of site isolation, which Chrome has supported for some time, and which Firefox is currently working towards. If you care about web security, you should care a lot about site isolation, because the web browser community has arrived at a consensus that this is the best way to mitigate speculative execution attacks.

Nowadays, all modern web browsers use separate, sandboxed helper processes to render web content, ensuring that the main user interface process, which is unsandboxed, does not touch untrusted web content. Prior to 3.36, Epiphany already used a separate web process to display each browser tab (except for “related views,” where one tab opens another and gains scripting ability over the opened tab, subject to the Same Origin Policy). But in Epiphany 3.36, we now also have a separate web process per website. Each tab will swap between different web processes when navigating between different websites, to prevent any one web process from loading content from different websites.

To make these process swap navigations fast, a pool of prewarmed processes is used to hide the startup cost of launching a new process by ensuring the new process exists before it’s needed; otherwise, the overhead of launching a new web process to perform the navigation would become noticeable. And suspended processes live on after they’re no longer in use because they may be needed for back/forward navigations, which use WebKit’s page cache when possible. (In the page cache, pages are kept in memory indefinitely, to make back/forward navigations fast.)

Due to internal refactoring, PSON previously necessitated some API breakage in WebKitGTK 2.26 that affected Evolution and Geary: WebKitGTK 2.26 deprecated WebKit’s single web process model and required that all applications use one web process per web view, which Evolution and Geary were not, at the time, prepared to handle. We tried hard to avoid this, because we hate to make behavioral changes that break applications, but in this case we decided it was unavoidable. That was the status quo in 2.26, without PSON, which we disabled just before releasing 2.26 in order to limit application breakage to just Evolution and Geary. Now, in WebKitGTK 2.28, PSON is finally available for applications to use on an opt-in basis. (It will become mandatory in the future, for GTK 4 applications.) Epiphany 3.36 opts in. To make this work, Carlos Garcia designed new WebKitGTK APIs for cross-process communication, and used them to replace the private D-Bus server that Epiphany previously used for this purpose.

WebKit still has a long way to go to fully implement site isolation, but PSON is a major step down that road. Thanks to Brady Eidson and Chris Dumez from Apple for making this work, and to Carlos Garcia for handling most of the breakage (there was a lot). As with any major intrusive change of such magnitude, regressions are inevitable, so don’t hesitate to report issues on WebKit Bugzilla.

highlight.js

Once upon a time, WebKit had its own implementation for viewing page source, but this was removed from WebKit way back in 2014, in WebKitGTK 2.6. Ever since, Epiphany would open your default text editor, usually gedit, to display page source. Suffice to say that this was not a very satisfactory solution.

I finally managed to implement view source mode at the Epiphany level for Epiphany 3.30, but I had trouble making syntax highlighting work. I tried using various open source syntax highlighting libraries, but most are designed to highlight small amounts of code, not large web pages. The libraries I tried were not fast enough, so I gave up on syntax highlighting at the time.

Thanks to Jan-Michael, Epiphany 3.36 supports syntax highlighting using highlight.js, so we finally have view source mode working fully properly once again. It works much better than my failed attempts with different JS libraries. Please thank the highlight.js developers for maintaining this library, and for making it open source.

Screenshot displaying Epiphany's view source mode
Colors!

Service Workers

Service workers are now available in WebKitGTK 2.28. Our friends at Apple had already implemented service worker support a couple years ago for Safari 11, but we were pretty slow in bringing this functionality to Linux. Finally, WebKitGTK should now be up to par with Safari in this regard.

Cookies!

Patrick Griffis has updated libsoup and WebKitGTK to support SameSite cookies. He’s also tightened up our cookie policy by implementing strict secure cookies, which prevents http:// pages from setting secure cookies (as they could overwrite secure cookies set by https:// pages).

Adaptive Design

As usual, there are more adaptive design improvements throughout the browser, to provide a better user experience on the Librem 5. There’s still more work to be done here, but Epiphany continues to provide the best user experience of any Linux browser at small screen sizes. Thanks to Adrien Plazas and Jan-Michael for their continued work on this.

Screenshot showing Epiphany running in mobile mode at small window size.
As before, simply resize your browser window to see Epiphany dynamically transition between desktop mode and mobile mode.

elementary OS

With help from Alexander Mikhaylenko, we’ve also upstreamed many elementary OS design changes, which will be used when running under the Pantheon desktop (and not impact users on other desktops), so that the elementary developers don’t need to maintain their customizations as separate patches anymore. This will eliminate a few elementary-specific bugs, including some keyboard shortcuts that were previously broken only in elementary, and some odd tab bar behavior. Although Epiphany still doesn’t feel quite as native as an app designed just for elementary OS, it’s getting closer.

Epiphany 3.34

I failed to blog about Epiphany 3.34 when I released it last September. Hopefully you have updated to 3.34 already, and are already enjoying the two big features from this release: the new adblocker, and the bubblewrap sandbox.

The new adblocker is based on WebKit Content Blockers, which was developed by Apple several years ago. Adrian Perez developed new WebKitGTK API to expose this functionality, changed Epiphany to use it, and deleted Epiphany’s older resource-hungry adblocker that was originally copied from Midori. Previously, Epiphany kept a large GHashMap of compiled regexes in every web process, consuming a very significant amount of RAM for each process. It also took time to compile these regexes when launching each new web process. Now, the adblock filters are instead compiled into an efficient bytecode format that gets mmapped between all web processes to avoid excessive resource use. The bytecode is interpreted by WebKit itself, rather than by Epiphany’s web process extension (which Epiphany uses to execute custom code in WebKit’s web process), for greatly improved performance.

Lastly, Epiphany 3.34 enabled Patrick’s bubblewrap sandbox, which was added in WebKitGTK 2.26. Bubblewrap is an amazing sandboxing tool, already used effectively by flatpak and rpm-ostree, and I’m very pleased with Patrick’s decision to use it for WebKit as well. Because enabling the sandbox can break applications, it is currently opt-in for GTK 3 apps (but will become mandatory for GTK 4 apps). If your application uses WebKitGTK, you really need to take some time to enable this sandbox using webkit_web_context_set_sandbox_enabled(). The sandbox has introduced a couple regressions that we didn’t notice until too late; notably,  printing no longer works, which, half a year later, we still haven’t managed to fix yet. (I’ll try to get to it soon.)

OK, this concludes your 3.36 and 3.34 updates. Onward to 3.38!

Enable Git Commit Message Syntax Highlighting in Vim on Fedora

Were you looking forward to reading an exciting blog post about substantive technical issues affecting GNOME or the Linux desktop community? Sorry, not today.

When setting up new machines, I’m often frustrated by lack of syntax highlighting for git commit messages in vim. On my main workstation, vim uses comforting yellow letters for the first line of my commit message to let me know I’m good on line length, or red background to let me know my first line is too long, and after the first line it automatically inserts a new line break whenever I’ve typed past 72 characters. It’s pretty nice. I can never remember how I get it working in the end, and I spent too long today trying to figure it out yet again. Eventually I realized there was another difference besides the missing syntax highlighting: I couldn’t see the current line or column number, and I couldn’t see the mode indicator either. Now you might be able to guess my mistake: git was not using /usr/bin/vim at all! Because Fedora doesn’t have a default $EDITOR, git defaults to using /usr/bin/vi, which is basically sad trap vim. Solution:

$ git config --global core.editor vim

You also have to install the vim-enhanced package to get /usr/bin/vim, but that’s a lot harder to forget to do.

You’re welcome, Internet!