No ad hoc parser in NeoPG

NeoPG uses formal grammars even for parsing trivial data structures, down to individual bytes. This article explains why.

Parsing byte streams into structured data is a staple of computer programming, and essential to many tasks. Common examples are all kind of files from user configuration to persistent data storage, network communication, but also command line arguments or interactive data input.

Some of these tasks are performed by dedicated parsers hidden beneath high level abstractions. libcurl happily takes care of HTTP data, cli11 is a dedicated command line parser that also implements some of the semantics of argument and option handling, and Botan does all the heavy lifting when handling X.509 certificates.

But sometimes, no libraries exist, and the programmer has to implement the parsing themselves. For example, command line parsers usually only understand numeric or string arguments, and other restrictions have to be implemented manually. A large software suite can have dozens or hundreds of such coincidental parsers. And of course, for software that implements the OpenPGP standard, implementing a parser for OpenPGP data formats is a core responsibility.

Ad hoc parsing in legacy code

GnuPG, too, contains many parsers. We can not give a complete list here, but here are some notable examples:

  • Of course, GnuPG contains an OpenPGP parser. A lot of it is contained in the file g10/parse-packet.c, but common/iobuf.c also plays an important role. Overall, the details of parsing OpenPGP is strewn all over the GnuPG source code.
  • Because this main OpenPGP parser in GnuPG is not designed to be reusable, GnuPG contains another specialized OpenPGP parser just for keys in local keyrings in kbx/keybox-openpgp.c.
  • Of course, GnuPG also has parsers for its configuration files, its key databases, and other support files.
  • GnuPG did use libcurl in the past, but replaced it with a hand-written, specialised HTTP parser in dirmngr/http.c at some time. It also includes its own DNS client library, three URL parsers, and a custom argument line parser.
  • GnuPG-related processes communicate over a line-based text protocol implemented in libassuan. The library supports parsing of the transports in this text protocol, but deserialization of the exchanged information requires many little parsers all throughout the code base.

All these parsers are hand-written C code, implemented with whatever standard functions seem locally appropriate (strtok, strlen, strchr, and so on). Offsets and lengths values are often calculated manually. There is only one formal grammar in the GnuPG code base, and that is for the ASN.1 parser in libksba (which is why it is not included in the above list). Here is a typical example from the GET_PASSPHRASE command in the Assuan protocol of gpg-agent, which takes four white-space separated arguments:

  cacheid = line;
  p = strchr (cacheid, ' ');
  if (p)
      *p++ = 0;
      while (*p == ' ')
      errtext = p;
      p = strchr (errtext, ' ');
      if (p)
          *p++ = 0;
          while (*p == ' ')
          prompt = p;
          p = strchr (prompt, ' ');
          if (p)
              *p++ = 0;
              while (*p == ' ')
              desc = p;
              p = strchr (desc, ' ');
              if (p)
                *p = 0; /* Ignore trailing garbage. */

Why ad-hoc parsing is bad

There are some obvious reasons why ad-hoc parsing is bad. First, it is very error-prone. Out-of-bounds violations, for example when miscounting length of arrays, is a common source for errors. Also, the standard library interface functions for string processing are not easy to use.

But there are more fundamental problems. Often it is hard to understand what a parser actually does, in particular on unexpected input. In fact, this problem is intractable in general. Even if a formal grammar is provided along with the ad-hoc parser (which is usually not the case), it is just as hard to show that the ad-hoc parser actually implements that grammar. With two ad-hoc parsers for the same language, we can not easily understand if they actually agree. There are three URL parsers in GnuPG. Do they treat a domain name like in the same way? There are two OpenPGP parsers in GnuPG. Will they treat public keys downloaded from a keyserver in the same way?

The fine people from LANGSEC explain it this way (Kudos to Kai Michaelis for pointing this out to me):

“When input handling is done in ad hoc way, the de facto recognizer, i.e. the input recognition and validation code ends up scattered throughout the program, does not match the programmers’ assumptions about safety and validity of data, and thus provides ample opportunities for exploitation. Moreover, for complex input languages the problem of full recognition of valid or expected inputs may be UNDECIDABLE, in which case no amount of input-checking code or testing will suffice to secure the program. Many popular protocols and formats fell into this trap, the empirical fact with which security practitioners are all too familiar.”

They make this recommendation:

“[…] the only path to trustworthy software that takes untrusted inputs is treating all valid or expected inputs as a formal language, and the respective input-handling routines as a recognizer for that language.”

This is precisely what NeoPG aims to do.

Parsing in NeoPG

In NeoPG, we try very hard to avoid ad-hoc parsing. Instead, we either use (hopefully widely used) libraries that implement abstractions, or we use formal grammars to process untrusted input.

Here are some examples for responsibility delegation:

  • NeoPG uses CLI11 for command line parsing. The parser in CLI11 certainly qualifies as an ad-hoc parser, but it is hidden behind an abstract library interface.
  • We also use libcurl, which probably contains several ad-hoc parsers, again hidden behind an abstract library interface.
  • We also use Botan for certificates and TLS. Again, the parsers in Botan are hidden behind an abstract library interface.

Clearly, delegating parsing to third parties does not prevent common bugs in ad-hoc parsers from occuring. However, this is not different from other bugs in third party libraries, and there are compensating benefits to sharing the same software with many other projects. It’s a simple risk and benefit analysis.

However, NeoPG has also its own parsers:

These parsers are not ad-hoc parsers, but generated based on formal grammars using the excellent template library PEGTL. For example, the grammar for an URL in PEGTL is lifted straight from RFC3986, while there is no corresponding expression of the intent in GnuPG. For comparison, here is the small part that deals with a username before the host.

From RFC3986:

      userinfo    = *( unreserved / pct-encoded / sub-delims / ":" )
      authority   = [ userinfo "@" ] host [ ":" port ]

PEGTL grammar in NeoPG (slightly simplified without backtrack handling):

struct userinfo : star< sor< unreserved, pct_encoded, sub_delims, one< ':' > > > {};
struct authority : seq< opt< userinfo, one< '@' > >, host, opt< one< ':' >, port > > {};

template <>
struct action<pegtl::uri::userinfo> : bind<&URI::userinfo> {};

template <>
struct action<pegtl::uri::host> : bind<&URI::host> {};

template <>
struct action<pegtl::uri::port> : bind<&URI::port> {};

void URI::parse {
  pegtl::parse<uri::authority, uri::action>(input, *this);

GnuPG source code:

/* Check for username/password encoding */
if ((p3 = strchr (p, '@'))) {
    uri->auth = p;
    *p3++ = '\0';
    p = p3;

for (pp=p; *pp; pp++) *pp = tolower (*(unsigned char*)pp);

/* Handle an IPv6 literal */
if(*p == '[' && (p3 = strchr(p, ']'))) {
    *p3++ = '\0';
    /* worst case, uri->host should have length 0, points to \0 */
    uri->host = p + 1;
    uri->v6lit = 1;
    p = p3;
} else
  uri->host = p;

if ((p3 = strchr (p, ':'))) {
  *p3++ = '\0';
  uri->port = atoi (p3);
  uri->explicit_port = 1;

In GnuPG, semantic actions (tolower, atoi) are mixed with the parser, and the underlying formal grammar is barely recognizable. It is hard to extract the intent of the source code, and it is also hard to verify its correctness.

In contrast, the PEGTL approach separates the recognition of the input from the semantic actions. This makes it easier to reason about the correctness of the code, and it also hides the mechanics of pointer arithmetics and string manipulation.

There is a setup cost in understanding the parser generator, the language in which the grammar is specified, and how to attach the semantic actions to grammar rules. Also, in the case of PEGTL, backtracking has to be handled manually (a design choice that maximizes the potential performance). Given that a large scale software project can easily contain dozens of parsers and hundreds of grammar rules, this setup cost quickly pays off.

Really no ad-hoc parsing?

What if you just have to parse something extremely simple? For example, a single byte? Even in this case, NeoPG uses a formal grammar. Here is how the version byte from an OpenPGP public key packet is parsed:

struct version : must<any> {};

template <typename Rule>
struct action : nothing<Rule> {};

template <>
struct action<version> {
  template <typename Input>
  static void apply(const Input& in, PublicKeyData::Version& version) {
    version = static_cast<PublicKeyData::Version>(in.peek_byte());


PublicKeyData::Version version;
pegtl::parse<version, action>(input, version);

This is 12 lines of code to extract a single byte from the input stream and store it in an enum variable. This seems excessively complicated compared to the corresponding code in GnuPG (g10/parse-packet.c::parse_key):

int parse_key (IOBUF inp, int pkttype, unsigned long pktlen, ...)
  int version = iobuf_get_noeof (inp);

Can you spot the bug? Take your time, I will wait.

What is missing in GnuPG is a check if pktlen is at least 1. In fact, if pktlen is 0, then the version byte will be read from the data following the current packet in the input stream, which usually is the header of the next packet. This is a boundary violation that keeping track of pktlen is supposed to prevent. In turn, pktlen will underflow, and, because it is an unsigned long value, it will be set to 2^64-1. A following sanity check will cause GnuPG to bail out and read the rest of the input stream (trying to skip 2^64-1 bytes of data, which it believes to be the length of the remaining data in the current packet).

The consequence is that GnuPG will behave considerably different from a conforming implementation, which will recognize the empty public key packet as empty and that will move the input pointer to the beginning of the next byte following the empty packet in the input stream.

This type of bugs are often not exploitable in isolation, but they can be very useful building blocks in constructing larger, more complex attacks. You can keep track of this bug upstream in T3862.

The fix is simple, of course:

  if (!pktlen)
    return GPG_ERR_INV_PACKET;
  int version = iobuf_get_noeof (inp);

But this needs to be done everywhere input is read. Which is literally dozens of places for this parser alone, and which often requires counting the required input bytes manually:

$ grep pktlen parse-packet.c |grep if
parse-packet.c:  if (pktlen != 3)
parse-packet.c:  if (pktlen < 4)
parse-packet.c:  if (pktlen > 200)
parse-packet.c:  if (pktlen < 2)
parse-packet.c:  if (minlen > pktlen)
parse-packet.c:  if (pktlen < 12)
parse-packet.c:  if (pktlen < 16)
parse-packet.c:      if (pktlen == 0)
parse-packet.c:  if (pktlen == 0)
parse-packet.c:      if (pktlen < 12)
parse-packet.c:  if (pktlen < 2)
parse-packet.c:      if (pktlen < 2)
parse-packet.c:      if (pktlen < n)
parse-packet.c:      if (pktlen < 2)
parse-packet.c:      if (pktlen < n)
parse-packet.c:  if (pktlen < 2)
parse-packet.c:      if (pktlen > (5 * MAX_EXTERN_MPI_BITS / 8))
parse-packet.c:  if (pktlen < 13)
parse-packet.c:  if (!pktlen)
parse-packet.c:  if (pktlen < 11)
parse-packet.c:  else if (pktlen > MAX_KEY_PACKET_LENGTH)
parse-packet.c:      if (pktlen < 1)
...(and so on)...

This is really awkward, and can lead to hard to find errors. Good software engineering principles require us to refactor the code to eliminate these redundancies. And one way to do so rigorously is by consistently applying a formal grammar even in simple cases.

PEGTL rulez!

PEGTL is a good example how the C++ template system can be used in a constructive and positive way. The grammar is written in native C++, instead of a domain specific-language. PEGTL then generates a parser which is completely inlined, and can be optimized by the compiler.

This means that, essentially, the above 12 lines of code to formally parse a version byte and store it into a variable, should be compiled to essentially the correct 4-line version in the GnuPG code. There are some minor differences, because the must<> rule generates an exception instead of returning an error value, but this is by choice. The overhead is purely syntactical. The important benefit is that the source code expresses the intent of the program to the reader, while the toolchain takes care of compiling it to efficient code.

Try it!

I hope I could convince you that it might be a good idea to follow the LANGSEC recommendation not only for complex input languages, but consistently throughout a program even for seemingly trivial cases. I understand that this is not an option for everybody, in all circumstances. Especially dynamic programming languages struggle with performance problems, because they have significant call overhead and can not inline as aggressively as C++ template libraries.

If you have worked on software projects that followed this approach, I would love to hear about your experiences, good or bad!

If you like what you see, please support NeoPG development!


Become a Patreon

Spread the word

If you want to write code or documentation, join us on GitHub!