The ultimate programming language?

In several earlier posts I was considering how the conventional notion of contextual equivalence, which relies relies on quantification over syntactic contexts, is sometimes not suitable and a more direct notion of equivalence should be used. This notion of equivalence, which I like to call system-level semantics, should be induced directly by what is observable by the execution environment as defined not only by language but also by abstract models of the compiler and the operating system.

More concretely, what I proposed (in a paper [PDF] with Nikos Tzevelekos) is that the system context should be defined along the lines of a Dolev-Yao attacker. This context is omnipotent but not omniscient: the program can hide information (data, code) from the context, but once the context gets this information it can use it in an unrestricted way. What we show then in our paper is how this attacker can produce “low-level” attacks against code, i.e. attacks which cannot be carried out in the language itself.

But what if the system-level context and the syntactic context are just as expressive? Then you have a fully abstract system-level semantics. This means that the attacker/context cannot produce any behaviours that cannot be produced in the language itself. Why is this cool? Because it means that all your correctness arguments about source level can be applied to the compiled code as well. You can think of a fully abstract system-level semantics as an abstract specification for a tamper-proof compilation scheme.

In a previous post I describe such a fully abstract SLS. Full abstraction is achieved by using monitors that serve as tamper detectors: if the environment behaves in ways which are illegal then the program takes defensive action (stops executing). So the full abstraction is achieved by introducing runtime checks for detecting bad behaviour, as in control-flow integrity, for example (see Abadi &al [PDF]).

But can you achieve a fully abstract SLS the other way around? By having a programming language that is so expressive that it can implement any attacks performed by a DY-style environment? I think the answer is ‘yes’. And such a language is surprisingly civilised: lambda calculus with state and control introduced in a uniform way. This language, called lambda-mu-hashref, was introduced especially to study security properties in a language capable of producing very powerful contexts. A fully abstract SLS-type semantics is given in the paper.

I find this quite remarkable, the fact that a civilised programming language which is not that much different from ML can induce contexts as powerful as a DY attacker. Any (reasonable) behaviour should be possible to implement using it. There is nothing else you can add to it to make it more expressive. It is, from this point of view, the ultimate programming language. 

About Dan Ghica

Reader in Semantics of Programming Languages // University of Birmingham // //
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