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Using a Bloom Filter to prevent users of your iOS app from accessing malicious sites

Yes, we could use a Bloom filter, which is a space-efficient and probabilistic data structure.
Using a Bloom Filter to prevent users of your iOS app from accessing malicious sites

Imagine that in your iOS app you have a UIWebView that loads an arbitrary URL. There are plenty of malicious sites on the web and let’s say we want to warn our users if they attempt to access a nefarious site. This begs the question: what’s an efficient way of checking if the domain in a URL is known to be a malicious site? Perhaps as a first pass at the problem, you would find a dossier of malicious domains, store the dossier in a set, and check to see if the domain in the arbitrary URL exists in the set.

var badDomains: Set<String> = ["badguys.com", "drevil.me", "virus.io"]

let websiteToLoad = NSURL(string: "http://virus.io")
if let validDomain = websiteToLoad?.host {
    if badDomains.contains(validDomain) {
        print("This website is known to be malicious!")
    } else {
        print("This website doesn't exist in our dossier. Let's proceed.")

The problem with this approach is that as your dossier grows, so will its memory footprint because you are storing each domain name as a string. In other words, a large dossier will consume a significant amount of memory. Is there a more efficient approach to maintain our list of bad domains without consuming too much memory? Yes, we could use a Bloom filter, which is a space-efficient and probabilistic data structure.

The basic concept

A Bloom filter can be conceptually thought of as a fixed-length array of bits.

[0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0]

Instead of inserting the value of an item into the array, we can just set some of these bits to 1. To see if an item is present, we can check to see if its corresponding place in the array has a 0 or 1. To perform both of these operations we will use hash functions. This is an important aspect to note. You will provide multiple hash functions (typically two or three) for your Bloom filter to use, as it will reduce the chances of false positives occurring.

Querying a Bloom filter will either return false, meaning that the item is not in the array, or true, meaning that the item might be in the array. In other words, if the Bloom filter returns false you are guaranteed that the item hasn’t been entered before. If it returns true, there is a chance it could be false positive.

Inserting an item

Let’s walkthrough the steps of inserting an item and querying to check the presence of an item to solidify these concepts. For this example, we will work with a Bloom filter with a fixed-length size of 6 bits. If we wanted to insert the string “virus.io” we would send it through our first hash function. Let’s say the output of this is: 1967507331. We would then perform (value) modulo (size of array) to get the index of which bit to set the value to 1. In our case 1967507331 % 6 = 3. We will set the value of the bit at index 3 to 1. Our Bloom filter now looks like:

[0, 0, 0, 1, 0, 0]

Now we need to pass our string through the second hash function. Let’s say the output of this is: 1164682772. If we continue following the steps, 1164682772 % 6 = 2. We will now set the value of the bit at index 2 to 1. Our Bloom filter now looks like:

[0, 0, 1, 1, 0, 0]

These two bit values indicate to the Bloom filter that you’ve inserted the string “virus.io”. To recap: instead of storing the actual string value we can run the string through several hash functions to give us a unique signature, which we can then map to an index in the array.

Checking the existence an item

To check to see if an item exists, you send the input through the hash functions, which will return array indices. You then check the value at each array index. If all of the values are 1 then the check will return true. If any, or all, of the values are 0 then the check will return false.

NOTE: As mentioned earlier, there is a chance that a false positive could occur. To be more specific, this occurs when the hash values of different input items are mapped to the same indices of the array. This can be remedied by having a large enough array size or by adding more hash functions that the Bloom filter can use. However, adding extraneous hash functions will slow down performance. Refer to this answer on StackOverflow, which provides a concise explanation of an equation you can use to calculate the number of needed hash functions. The performance of the Bloom filter will be O(k), where k is the number of hash functions.

Implementation in Swift

When implementing a Bloom filter in Swift, we can represent 0 or 1 with the boolean values of false or true. Why would we do this? Well in Swift boolean values take less memory to represent than integer values. There is a handy enum in Swift 3 called MemoryLayout<T> that we can use to verify the aforementioned claim. Take a look at the output below:

// A Bool is represented with 1 byte

// An Int is represented with 8 bytes

Jamil Dhanani and Matthijs Hollemans from the Swift Algorithm Club have created an implementation of a Bloom filter in Swift that I will use as the basis for explanation. Here is the scaffold of the Bloom filter class:

public class BloomFilter<T> {
    private var array: [Bool]
    private var hashFunctions: [(T) -> Int]
    public init(size: Int = 1024, hashFunctions: [(T) -> Int]) {
        self.array = [Bool](repeating: false, count: size)
        self.hashFunctions = hashFunctions
    private func computeHashes(_ value: T) -> [Int]
    public func insert(_ element: T)
    public func query(_ value: T) -> Bool
    public func isEmpty()

In the upcoming sections we will explore the inner workings of each function. The Bloom filter class is of a generic type. It has two stored properties:

  • An array of type Bool
  • An array to store the hash functions that we’ll use

The first array will be initialized to a fixed size. If you’re unfamiliar with the syntactic sugar, you can initialize an array to repeat a value for a given number of times. For example:

[Int](repeating: 7, count: 3)

Will create an array with three 7’s.

[7, 7, 7]

The second array will store the hashing functions we will use.

Computing hash values

Both the insert and query operations the need a way to calculate a hash value. The computeHashes() function will be a helper function to do this, which is why it is marked as private. This function will iterate over each hash function in the array containing hash functions and apply the function to the input. Then it will perform modulo on this value by the array’s size. This will give us an index for us to use in our array of booleans to change the corresponding value to true. The output of this function will be an array of indices.

private func computeHashes(_ value: T) -> [Int] {
  return hashFunctions.map() { hashFunction in abs(hashFunction(value) % array.count) }

For those unfamiliar with the closure syntax in Swift, here’s another way to write out this function:

private func computeHashes(_ value: T) -> [Int] {
  return hashFunctions.map({
    (hashFunction: (T) -> Int) -> Int in
      return abs(hashFunction(value)) % array.count

map() will return an array with the integer values that resulted from the operations. I plan on writing a blog post on map() and other higher order functions that you can perform on arrays in Swift in the future. For now just know that map() provides us with a functional alternative to using a for loop. For the sake of comparison, this is what the computeHashes() function would look if we used a for loop instead:

private func computeHashes(_ value: T) -> [Int] {
    var results: [Int] = []
    for hashFunction in hashFunctions {
        let value = abs(hashFunction(value)) % array.count
    return results

NOTE: Taking the absolute value of the result of performing the hash function on a value is a preventative measure just in case the result is a negative value.

Inserting a value

Now that we have a handy helper function, we’ll invoke it on the value passed in. This will give us an array of indices we can iterate over. We’ll set the value at the index of our internal array to true.

public func insert(_ element: T) {
  for hashValuePosition in computeHashes(element) {
    array[hashValuePosition] = true

Querying for a value

To see if a value exists in the Bloom Filter, we first have to pass the value in question into the computeHashes(_ value: T -> [Int]) function. As a reminder this function will take in the input, pass it through the hash functions we’ve included in our Bloom Filter, and the output will be an array of indices. Now with this array of indices, we can iterate through our array and find all the results at the indices. If all the results are true then we can return true to indicate the item was found or conversely false. As mentioned earlier, a result of true doesn’t mean that the item you’re looking for exists for certain—it’s a probabilistic yes. However if false is returned then you are guaranteed that the item was never entered.

public func query(_ value: T) -> Bool {
    let hashValuePositions = computeHashes(value)
    let valuesAtIndices = hashValuePositions.map() { hashValuePosition in array[hashValuePosition] }
    let exists = valuesAtIndices.reduce(true, { $0 && $1 })
    return exists

NOTE: $0 and $1 are shorthand syntax for the argument names. Swift will automatically provide shorthand argument names to inline closures, e.g. $0, $1, $2, etc.

Checking if the Bloom Filter is empty

Checking to see if the Bloom Filter is empty is easy. Just how in the previous section we reduced the array to get a result of true or false, we can essentially use the same technique to see if any true’s exist in the array. As a reminder, the array was initialized to false in each of its indices. The only tricky thing be cognizant in this step is if the array is empty, meaning it only contains false, return true. This is because this method in the Bloom Filter should ask the question, “Is the contents of the Bloom Filter empty?”

public func isEmpty() -> Bool {
    return array.reduce(true) { prev, next in prev && !next }

Applying the Bloom Filter to our first example

To wrap up everything we’ve learn so far, let’s revisit our first example and replace the use of a set with a Bloom Filter.

let badDomains = BloomFilter<String>(size: 1024, hashFunctions: [djb2, sdbm])

let websiteToLoad = NSURL(string: "http://virus.io")
if let validDomain = websiteToLoad?.host {
    if badDomains.query(validDomain) {
        print("The website is most likely bad!")
    } else {
        print("This website doesn't exist in our dossier. Let's proceed.")

NOTE: djb2 and sdbm are hash functions for strings.

We now have a data structure that can handle a large dossier of malicious websites! For example, we could parse through the .csv file of suspicious domains from the SANS Institute and store the entries in the Bloom Filter. Even though we’ve reached the end of this blog post, if you’re curious to learn about other applications for Bloom Filters check out this section of its Wikipedia entry.