PyPy’s sandboxing features


This describes the old, unmaintained version. A new version is in progress in the sandbox-2 and py3.6-sandbox-2 branches and in the sandboxlib repo. Please see its description here:

Also note that python 3.7+ requires the _thread module, which may be a consideration in escaping the sandbox.


PyPy offers sandboxing at a level similar to OS-level sandboxing (e.g. SECCOMP on Linux), but implemented in a fully portable way. To use it, a (regular, trusted) program launches a subprocess that is a special sandboxed version of PyPy. This subprocess can run arbitrary untrusted Python code, but all its input/output is serialized to a stdin/stdout pipe instead of being directly performed. The outer process reads the pipe and decides which commands are allowed or not (sandboxing), or even reinterprets them differently (virtualization). A potential attacker can have arbitrary code run in the subprocess, but cannot actually do any input/output not controlled by the outer process. Additional barriers are put to limit the amount of RAM and CPU time used.

Note that this is very different from sandboxing at the Python language level, i.e. placing restrictions on what kind of Python code the attacker is allowed to run (why? read about pysandbox).

Another point of comparison: if we were instead to try to plug CPython into a special virtualizing C library, we would get a result that is not only OS-specific, but unsafe, because CPython can be segfaulted (in many ways, all of them really, really obscure). Given enough efforts, an attacker can turn almost any segfault into a vulnerability. The C code generated by PyPy is not segfaultable, as long as our code generators are correct - that’s a lower number of lines of code to trust. For the paranoid, PyPy translated with sandboxing also contains systematic run-time checks (against buffer overflows for example) that are normally only present in debugging versions.


The hard work from the PyPy side is done — you get a fully secure version. What is only experimental and unpolished is the library to use this sandboxed PyPy from a regular Python interpreter (CPython, or an unsandboxed PyPy). Contributions welcome.


Tested with PyPy2. May not work out of the box with PyPy3.


One of PyPy’s translation aspects is a sandboxing feature. It’s “sandboxing” as in “full virtualization”, but done in normal C with no OS support at all. It’s a two-processes model: we can translate PyPy to a special “pypy-c-sandbox” executable, which is safe in the sense that it doesn’t do any library or system calls - instead, whenever it would like to perform such an operation, it marshals the operation name and the arguments to its stdout and it waits for the marshalled result on its stdin. This pypy-c-sandbox process is meant to be run by an outer “controller” program that answers these operation requests.

The pypy-c-sandbox program is obtained by adding a transformation during translation, which turns all RPython-level external function calls into stubs that do the marshalling/waiting/unmarshalling. An attacker that tries to escape the sandbox is stuck within a C program that contains no external function calls at all except for writing to stdout and reading from stdin. (It’s still attackable in theory, e.g. by exploiting segfault-like situations, but as explained in the introduction we think that PyPy is rather safe against such attacks.)

The outer controller is a plain Python program that can run in CPython or a regular PyPy. It can perform any virtualization it likes, by giving the subprocess any custom view on its world. For example, while the subprocess thinks it’s using file handles, in reality the numbers are created by the controller process and so they need not be (and probably should not be) real OS-level file handles at all. In the demo controller I’ve implemented there is simply a mapping from numbers to file-like objects. The controller answers to the “os_open” operation by translating the requested path to some file or file-like object in some virtual and completely custom directory hierarchy. The file-like object is put in the mapping with any unused number >= 3 as a key, and the latter is returned to the subprocess. The “os_read” operation works by mapping the pseudo file handle given by the subprocess back to a file-like object in the controller, and reading from the file-like object.

Translating an RPython program with sandboxing enabled also uses a special flag that enables all sorts of C-level assertions against index-out-of-bounds accesses.

By the way, as you should have realized, it’s really independent from the fact that it’s PyPy that we are translating. Any RPython program should do. I’ve successfully tried it on the JS interpreter. The controller is only called “pypy_interact” because it emulates a file hierarchy that makes pypy-c-sandbox happy - it contains (read-only) virtual directories like /bin/lib/pypy1.2/lib-python and /bin/lib/pypy1.2/lib_pypy and it pretends that the executable is /bin/pypy-c.


Grab a copy of the pypy repository. In the directory pypy/goal, run:

../../rpython/bin/rpython -O2 --sandbox

If you don’t have a regular PyPy installed, you should, because it’s faster to translate; but you can also run the same line with python in front.

To run it, use the tools in the pypy/sandbox directory:

./ /some/path/pypy-c-sandbox [args...]

Just like with pypy-c, if you pass no argument you get the interactive prompt. In theory it’s impossible to do anything bad or read a random file on the machine from this prompt. To pass a script as an argument you need to put it in a directory along with all its dependencies, and ask pypy_interact to export this directory (read-only) to the subprocess’ virtual /tmp directory with the --tmp=DIR option. Example:

mkdir myexported
cp myexported/
./ --tmp=myexported /some/path/pypy-c-sandbox /tmp/

This is safe to do even if comes from some random untrusted source, e.g. if it is done by an HTTP server.

To limit the used heapsize, use the --heapsize=N option to You can also give a limit to the CPU time (real time) by using the --timeout=N option.

Not all operations are supported; e.g. if you type os.readlink(‘…’), the controller crashes with an exception and the subprocess is killed. Other operations make the subprocess die directly with a “Fatal RPython error”. None of this is a security hole. More importantly, most other built-in modules are not enabled. Please read all the warnings in this page before complaining about this. Contributions welcome.