Dapp Isolation Mechanisms in the Ethereum Ecosystem
TLDR: Requiring manual approval for every signature request can hinder good social and gaming experiences. We can automate signature approval with dapp isolation mechanisms such as session keys. Dapp isolation can not only improve user experience, but it can also ensure security when testing new dapps. This could reverse the negative trend of users being reluctant to experiment with new things and ultimately benefit the ecosystem as a whole.
What is Dapp Isolation
Assume a universe with two tokens Doken and Goken, and two dapps dapp.com and gapp.com. Both dapps try to spend both tokens, but the owner only wants to spend Dokens on dapp.com and Gokens on gapp.com. How can this be enforced?
One way is to require interpreting all signature requests and have the user or the wallet block requests that want to spend Dokens on gapp.com or Gokens on dapp.com. This is the default solution in the Ethereum ecosystem, but it’s very difficult to execute securely for both humans and computers. In fact, determining the outcome of all possible signature requests with certainty when off-chain signatures can lead to on-chain transactions is probably an unsolvable problem. The best wallets can do currently is offer warnings.
Another way to guarantee that Dokens can be only spent on dapp.com and Gokens on gapp.com is to use isolation mechanisms such as session keys. Isolation mechanisms flip the problem from denying unintended requests to only allowing intended requests. With isolation mechanisms, we can guarantee that the invariant holds, so we can eliminate transaction approval.
Isolation mechanisms solve an important UX and security problem, but since they aren’t part of the Ethereum protocol, they come with some caveats. This posts lists the various isolation mechanisms and discusses their strengths and limitations.
A dapp is a website that interacts with smart contracts through its front end code. Users typically identify dapps by their domains. We can isolate dapps either at the domain level or at the smart contract level.
Domain Level Isolation
The main advantage of domain level isolation is that it matches how users identify dapps.
Domain level isolation is not a new concept on the web and it is an integral part of all web browsers, forming the basis of security mechanisms like cookies and the same-origin policy.
To implement domain level isolation, we need to determine which domain served the document that issued a signature request. Web browsers hold this information, so getting the domain is easy for wallets that are part of web browsers or integrate with browsers through extensions. They can also pass the domain to smart contracts as transaction parameters.
Determining the domain that issued a signature request is a much more difficult problem for wallets that are not directly integrated with the browser. For example, WalletConnect states that they have an 80% solution which is ok for their intended use (phishing mitigation), but it's unclear whether it can be relied on for automated signature approval.
Smart Contract Level Isolation
Smart contract level isolation makes it easy to enforce restrictions on transactions, but it’s not as straightforward as it sounds. A legitimate smart contract can be used maliciously e.g. by listing a valuable NFT for a pittance. This means that it’s not enough to set the isolation boundary on specific contracts, but the boundary also has to encompass how parameters are passed to the contracts.
Another issue is that humans do not identify dapps by smart contract addresses and a dapp may use multiple addresses and addresses may vary across chains. This means that a wallet wanting to perform smart contract-level dapp isolation probably needs to maintain a centralized registry that maps dapp names to addresses. If the dapp identifier mapping needs to be accessed on-chain, that further complicates things and most likely requires an oracle, unless the registry is on-chain. However, that introduces the problem of name squatting.
Dapp Isolation Implementations
This section reviews implementations of dapp isolation currently used or being developed in the ecosystem.
Off-Chain Session Keys
Off-chain session keys are the most widely deployed mechanism for automated signature approval in the ecosystem currently.
Many dapps with traditional backends have adopted digital signatures for authorization. Off-chain session keys are used to automate signature approval for these backends.
Session keys are ephemeral keys that are randomly generated within the application that intends to use them. The address owner then signs a message that grants the random key certain permissions. These permissions are typically application-specific, but standards like UCANs are emerging.
Off-chain session keys do not control assets, so security questions around them are lower impact. Still, I believe that the potential for unexpected outcomes from interactions between different permission systems is underexplored.
- Farcaster Delegated Signers
- Lit Protocol Session Keys
- Sequence Session Keys
- Sign-In With Ethereum + Session Keys
Session Keys for Smart Contract Wallets
Session keys for smart contract wallets (SCW) are a new mechanism. Many SCW teams are working on session keys and the first production implementations are starting to pop up.
The idea is the same as with off-chain session keys: an ephemeral key is created by a dapp, the SCW assigns some permissions to the ephemeral key after which the dapp can produce signatures for a limited set of transactions using the session key without requiring the user’s approval.
SCW session keys can use EIP-4337 paymasters so the ephemeral key can submit transactions without holding tokens to pay for gas fees.
A straightforward implementation of SCW session key permissions is to restrict the contract methods and contract addresses the session key can call. As mentioned earlier, a legit smart contract can be used maliciously e.g. by listing a valuable NFT for a pittance. Therefore, in addition to checking the address and the methods called by a transaction, the SCW implementation has to be able to interpret the method parameters as well to prevent abuse.
Interpreting parameters for standard token methods seems feasible, but it’s unclear if a generic permission system can be designed that allows SCW session keys for data other than standard tokens (e.g. custom game state or off-chain signatures). It’s also unclear how the user knows for which dapp they’re approving permissions and what are the semantics of the permission.
Another approach to permissions is for the dapps to define the permissions they request. This solves the problem of wallet-defined permissions not being generic enough, but now wallets have to be able interpret dapp permission requests in order to let the user make an informed decision.
This has the makings of an N x M problem where dapps have to support many different wallet permissions and wallets have to support many different dapp permissions. If that happens, the burden of interpreting dapp permission requests will most likely fall on users and that’d render the security benefits of session keys moot, so we should start thinking about solutions here.
Dapp keys are externally owned accounts (EOA) that are unique to a domain. Binding an EOA to a dapp by domain is an effective isolation mechanism that enables automated signature approval for both on- and off-chain signatures. Since a dapp key is just an EOA, it can hold assets and it works by default for all dapps on all chains.
Users authorize dapps to use their assets by transferring them to the dapp key from another address.
Dapp key implementations are more complex than off-chain session keys since they need to be backed up and they need to receive tokens for gas fees.
Having to transfer tokens to dapp keys can be prohibitive on L1, but it’s less of a problem on cheap L2s. EIP-3074 and sponsored transactions would eliminate the need to transfer tokens for gas fees.
One further challenge with dapp keys is that many apps assume one EOA per user when using the user's on-chain history for authorization purposes. However, this trend seems to be changing with solutions like Delegate Cash. Additionally, having many addresses can cause headaches when preparing tax returns.
The WebAuthn protocol introduces passwordless authentication to the internet using public key cryptography with passkeys. Last year, Apple, Google, and Microsoft announced a joint effort to accelerate its adoption, and it is now natively supported in all major browsers. SCWs can be modified to verify signatures from WebAuthn keys on the chain.
WebAuthn keys are scoped to domains for phishing protection and privacy. Different domains have different keys.
On the one hand scoping keys to domains is a useful property for SCWs, because it can be used to verify on chain which dapp (domain) the signature was produced for.
On the other hand, scoping keys to domains makes it difficult to manage WebAuthn signers for SCWs. Consider the case when a smart contract wallet is created with a WebAuthn signer on webauthn-scw.com. Now if that smart contract wallet is to be used on some-dapp.com, some-dapp.com has to embed webauth-scw.com as an iframe in order to facilitate that.
With WebAuthn, each signature requires a UI interaction by the user, so WebAuthn keys cannot be directly used for automatic transaction approval. Instead, an additional delegation step must be used from the WebAuthn key to a session key.
An earlier version of this post has appeared on the Ethereum Magicians forum.