Discontinuing the hardened Tor Browser series
When we started with the hardened Tor Browser series 18 months ago, we had two main purposes in mind:
- It should help us to identify issues earlier, therefore allowing to develop and backport fixes to the Tor Browser alpha and stable series.
The hardened series was a non-stable series on purpose, aimed at experienced users. The reason for that was not only the heavy performance impact of the hardening and debugging features we deployed. Rather, the impact of mixing both in Tor Browser seemed to be not well understood either: for example, does compiling Tor Browser with Address Sanitizer really lead to a more secure browser, given that the sanitizer is mainly intended as a debugging tool? Moreover, just using the hardening options provided by the toolchain seemed to be an incomplete solution to the problem—a bandaid until we could provide a more complete approach to hardening.
Looking again at its purposes above, we think it is safe to say that the hardened series indeed helped us identifying issues early on: with it we found bugs both in Firefox and tor and they got resolved quickly.
The picture is not so clear with respect to the promised security benefits. Part of the problem is that "more secure" can mean a wide variety of things. Another part is that we did not measure if we were indeed adding a security benefit to Tor Browser with all the techniques we deployed. What we learned over the course of the past 18 months, however, is that enabling expensive hardening can aid in making Tor Browser crashes much more reliable.
But that's not the only thing we learned. It seems we underestimated the confusion among users caused by labeling the series as "hardened" while at the same time including features for debugging purposes as well. The resulting experimental character of this series made it hard for users to decide whether that's actually the Tor Browser they wanted to have or not.
Where does that leave us? We've decided to stop having a "hardened" browser series, and instead we'll provide separate tools for the two purposes that it aimed to solve:
Users that are currently on the hardened update channel will get an update to the most recent Tor Browser alpha with a note to use Sandboxed Tor Browser instead for enhanced security. While the Sandboxed Tor Browser is currently in an experimental state itself, we feel that it provides much better safeguards against exploitation than the features we shipped in the hardened series.
Having Sandboxed Tor Browser for hardening the browser experience allows us to do an even better job with finding problems earlier in our Tor Browser patches or code in Tor Browser generally: we can include more debugging aids into special debug builds. We plan to do so and get back to dedicated debug nightly builds when we switch to our reproducible builds manager (rbm), which is happening soon.
Finally, thanks to all users of the hardened Tor Browser series. We hope Sandboxed Tor Browser and the upcoming debug builds will provide an even better match to your needs. If not, please make sure to file a bug in our bug tracker and we'll look into it.