Science and Engineering

Formal Specification and Verification

A significant strength of developing a protocol using a provably correct security model is that it provides a guaranteed limit of adversarial power. One is given a contract that as long as the protocol is followed and the proofs are correct, the adversary cannot violate the security properties claimed.

Deeper reflection makes the prior assertion even more significant. Adversaries can be arbitrarily intelligent and capable. To say they are defeated solely through a mathematical model is extraordinary. And, of course, it is not entirely true.

Reality introduces factors and circumstances that prevent the utopia of pure security and correct behavior from existing. Implementations can be wrong. Hardware can introduce attack vectors previously unconsidered. The security model might be insufficient and not conform to real life use.

A judgement call is needed about how much specification, rigor and checking is demanded for a protocol. For example, endeavors like the SeL4 Microkernel project are a prime example of an all out assault on ambiguity requiring almost 200,000 lines of Isabelle code to verify less than 10,000 lines of C code. Yet an operating system kernel is critical infrastructure that could be a serious security vulnerability if not properly implemented.

Should all cryptographic software require the same Herculean effort? Or can one choose a less vigorous path that produces equivalent outcomes? Also does it matter if the protocol is perfectly implemented if the environment it runs in is notoriously vulnerable such as on Windows XP?

For Cardano, we have chosen the following compromise. First, due to the complex nature of the domains of cryptography and distributed computing, proofs tend to be very subtle, long, complicated and sometimes quite technical. This implies that human driven checking can be tedious and error-prone. Therefore, we believe that every significant proof presented in a white paper written to cover core infrastructure needs to be machine checked.

Second, to verify Haskell code so it correctly corresponds to our white papers, we can choose between two popular options: interfacing with SMT provers via LiquidHaskell and using Isabelle/HOL.

SMT (satisfiability modulo theories) solvers deal with the problem of finding functional parameters that satisfy an equation or inequation, or alternatively showing that such parameters do not exist. As discussed by De Moura and Bjørner, use cases of SMT are various, but the key point is that these techniques are both powerful and can dramatically reduce bugs and semantic errors.

Isabelle/HOL, on the other hand, is a more expressive and diverse tool which can be used to both specify and verify implementation. Isabelle is a generic theorem solver working with higher-order logic constructs, capable of representing sets and other mathematical objects to be used in proofs. Isabelle itself integrates with Z3 SMT prover to work with problems involving such constraints.

Both approaches provide value and therefore we have decided to embrace them both in stages. Human written proofs will be encoded in Isabelle to check their correctness thereby satisfying our machine checking requirement. And we intend on gradually adding Liquid Haskell to all production code in Cardano’s implementation throughout 2017 and 2018.

As a final point, formal verification is only as good as the specification one is verifying from and the toolsets available. One of the primary reasons for choosing Haskell is that it provides the right balance of practicality and theory. Specification derived from white papers looks a lot like Haskell code, and connecting the two is considerably easier than doing so with an imperative language.

There is still enormous difficulty in capturing a proper specification and also updating the specification when changes such as upgrades, bug fixes and other concerns need to be made; however, this reality does not in any way diminish the overall value. If one is going to trouble of building a foundation upon provable security, then the implementation should be what was actually proposed on paper.

Last updated: July 17, 2020 11:40 UTC

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