private

Utility for associating truly private state with any JavaScript object

npm install private
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A general-purpose utility for associating truly private state with any JavaScript object.

Installation

From NPM:

npm install private

From GitHub:

cd path/to/node_modules
git clone git://github.com/benjamn/private.git
cd private
npm install .

Usage

Get or create a secret object associated with any (non-frozen) object:

var getSecret = require("private").makeAccessor();
var obj = Object.create(null); // any kind of object works
getSecret(obj).totallySafeProperty = "p455w0rd";

console.log(Object.keys(obj)); // []
console.log(Object.getOwnPropertyNames(obj)); // []
console.log(getSecret(obj)); // { totallySafeProperty: "p455w0rd" }

Now, only code that has a reference to both getSecret and obj can possibly access .totallySafeProperty.

Importantly, no global references to the secret object are retained by the private package, so as soon as obj gets garbage collected, the secret will be reclaimed as well. In other words, you don't have to worry about memory leaks.

Create a unique property name that cannot be enumerated or guessed:

var secretKey = require("private").makeUniqueKey();
var obj = Object.create(null); // any kind of object works

Object.defineProperty(obj, secretKey, {
  value: { totallySafeProperty: "p455w0rd" },
  enumerable: false // optional; non-enumerability is the default
});

Object.defineProperty(obj, "nonEnumerableProperty", {
  value: "anyone can guess my name",
  enumerable: false
});

console.log(obj[secretKey].totallySafeProperty); // p455w0rd
console.log(obj.nonEnumerableProperty); // "anyone can guess my name"
console.log(Object.keys(obj)); // []
console.log(Object.getOwnPropertyNames(obj)); // ["nonEnumerableProperty"]

for (var key in obj) {
  console.log(key); // never called
}

Because these keys are non-enumerable, you can't discover them using a for-in loop. Because secretKey is a long string of random characters, you would have a lot of trouble guessing it. And because the private module wraps Object.getOwnPropertyNames to exclude the keys it generates, you can't even use that interface to discover it.

Unless you have access to the value of the secretKey property name, there is no way to access the value associated with it. So your only responsibility as secret-keeper is to avoid handing out the value of secretKey to untrusted code.

Think of this style as a home-grown version of the first style. Note, however, that it requires a full implementation of ES5's Object.defineProperty method in order to make any safety guarantees, whereas the first example will provide safety even in environments that do not support Object.defineProperty.

Rationale

In JavaScript, the only data that are truly private are local variables whose values do not leak from the scope in which they were defined.

This notion of closure privacy is powerful, and it readily provides some of the benefits of traditional data privacy, a la Java or C++:

function MyClass(secret) {
    this.increment = function() {
        return ++secret;
    };
}

var mc = new MyClass(3);
console.log(mc.increment()); // 4

You can learn something about secret by calling .increment(), and you can increase its value by one as many times as you like, but you can never decrease its value, because it is completely inaccessible except through the .increment method. And if the .increment method were not available, it would be as if no secret variable had ever been declared, as far as you could tell.

This style breaks down as soon as you want to inherit methods from the prototype of a class:

function MyClass(secret) {
    this.secret = secret;
}

MyClass.prototype.increment = function() {
    return ++this.secret;
};

The only way to communicate between the MyClass constructor and the .increment method in this example is to manipulate shared properties of this. Unfortunately this.secret is now exposed to unlicensed modification:

var mc = new MyClass(6);
console.log(mc.increment()); // 7
mc.secret -= Infinity;
console.log(mc.increment()); // -Infinity
mc.secret = "Go home JavaScript, you're drunk.";
mc.increment(); // NaN

Another problem with closure privacy is that it only lends itself to per-instance privacy, whereas the private keyword in most object-oriented languages indicates that the data member in question is visible to all instances of the same class.

Suppose you have a Node class with a notion of parents and children:

function Node() {
    var parent;
    var children = [];

    this.getParent = function() {
        return parent;
    };

    this.appendChild = function(child) {
        children.push(child);
        child.parent = this; // Can this be made to work?
    };
}

The desire here is to allow other Node objects to manipulate the value returned by .getParent(), but otherwise disallow any modification of the parent variable. You could expose a .setParent function, but then anyone could call it, and you might as well give up on the getter/setter pattern.

This module solves both of these problems.

Usage

Let's revisit the Node example from above:

var p = require("private").makeAccessor();

function Node() {
    var privates = p(this);
    var children = [];

    this.getParent = function() {
        return privates.parent;
    };

    this.appendChild = function(child) {
        children.push(child);
        var cp = p(child);
        if (cp.parent)
            cp.parent.removeChild(child);
        cp.parent = this;
        return child;
    };
}

Now, in order to access the private data of a Node object, you need to have access to the unique p function that is being used here. This is already an improvement over the previous example, because it allows restricted access by other Node instances, but can it help with the Node.prototype problem too?

Yes it can!

var p = require("private").makeAccessor();

function Node() {
    p(this).children = [];
}

var Np = Node.prototype;

Np.getParent = function() {
    return p(this).parent;
};

Np.appendChild = function(child) {
    p(this).children.push(child);
    var cp = p(child);
    if (cp.parent)
        cp.parent.removeChild(child);
    cp.parent = this;
    return child;
};

Because p is in scope not only within the Node constructor but also within Node methods, we can finally avoid redefining methods every time the Node constructor is called.

Now, you might be wondering how you can restrict access to p so that no untrusted code is able to call it. The answer is to use your favorite module pattern, be it CommonJS, AMD define, or even the old Immediately-Invoked Function Expression:

var Node = (function() {
    var p = require("private").makeAccessor();

    function Node() {
        p(this).children = [];
    }

    var Np = Node.prototype;

    Np.getParent = function() {
        return p(this).parent;
    };

    Np.appendChild = function(child) {
        p(this).children.push(child);
        var cp = p(child);
        if (cp.parent)
            cp.parent.removeChild(child);
        cp.parent = this;
        return child;
    };

    return Node;
}());

var parent = new Node;
var child = new Node;
parent.appendChild(child);
assert.strictEqual(child.getParent(), parent);

Because this version of p never leaks from the enclosing function scope, only Node objects have access to it.

So, you see, the claim I made at the beginning of this README remains true:

In JavaScript, the only data that are truly private are local variables whose values do not leak from the scope in which they were defined.

It just so happens that closure privacy is sufficient to implement a privacy model similar to that provided by other languages.

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