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Chapter: Security in Computing : Program Security

Covert Channels: Programs That Leak Information

Covert Channel Overview, How to Create Covert Channels, Storage Channels, Identifying Potential Covert Channels.

Covert Channels: Programs That Leak Information


So far, we have looked at malicious code that performs unwelcome actions. Next, we turn to programs that communicate information to people who should not receive it. The communication travels unnoticed, accompanying other, perfectly proper, communications. The general name for these extraordinary paths of communication is covert channels. The concept of a covert channel comes from a paper by Lampson; Millen  presents a good taxonomy of covert channels.


Suppose a group of students is preparing for an exam for which each question has four choices (a, b, c, d); one student in the group, Sophie, understands the material perfectly and she agrees to help the others. She says she will reveal the answers to the questions, in order, by coughing once for answer "a," sighing for answer "b," and so forth. Sophie uses a communications channel that outsiders may not notice; her communications are hidden in an open channel. This communication is a human example of a covert channel.


We begin by describing how a programmer can create covert channels. The attack is more complex than one by a lone programmer accessing a data source. A programmer who has direct access to data can usually just read the data and write it to another file or print it out. If, however, the programmer is one step removed from the datafor example, outside the organization owning the datathe programmer must figure how to get at the data. One way is to supply a bona fide program with a built-in Trojan horse; once the horse is enabled, it finds and transmits the data. However, it would be too bold to generate a report labeled "Send this report to Jane Smith in Camden, Maine"; the programmer has to arrange to extract the data more surreptitiously. Covert channels are a means of extracting data clandestinely.


Figure 3-11 shows a "service program" containing a Trojan horse that tries to copy information from a legitimate user (who is allowed access to the information) to a "spy" (who ought not be allowed to access the information). The user may not know that a Trojan horse is running and may not be in collusion to leak information to the spy.


Covert Channel Overview


A programmer should not have access to sensitive data that a program processes after the program has been put into operation. For example, a programmer for a bank has no need to access the names or balances in depositors' accounts. Programmers for a securities firm have no need to know what buy and sell orders exist for the clients. During program testing, access to the real data may be justifiable, but not after the program has been accepted for regular use.

Still, a programmer might be able to profit from knowledge that a customer is about to sell a large amount of a particular stock or that a large new account has just been opened. Sometimes a programmer may want to develop a program that secretly communicates some of the data on which it operates. In this case, the programmer is the "spy," and the "user" is whoever ultimately runs the program written by the programmer.


How to Create Covert Channels


A programmer can always find ways to communicate data values covertly. Running a program that produces a specific output report or displays a value may be too obvious. For example, in some installations, a printed report might occasionally be scanned by security staff before it is delivered to its intended recipient.


If printing the data values themselves is too obvious, the programmer can encode the data values in another innocuous report by varying the format of the output, changing the lengths of lines, or printing or not printing certain values. For example, changing the word "TOTAL" to "TOTALS" in a heading would not be noticed, but this creates a 1-bit covert channel. The absence or presence of the S conveys one bit of information. Numeric values can be inserted in insignificant positions of output fields, and the number of lines per page can be changed. Examples of these subtle channels are shown in Figure 3-12.



Storage Channels


Some covert channels are called storage channels because they pass information by using the presence or absence of objects in storage.


A simple example of a covert channel is the file lock channel . In multiuser systems, files can be "locked" to prevent two people from writing to the same file at the same time (which could corrupt the file, if one person writes over some of what the other wrote). The operating system or database management system allows only one program to write to a file at a time by blocking, delaying, or rejecting write requests from other programs. A covert channel can signal one bit of information by whether or not a file is locked.


Remember that the service program contains a Trojan horse written by the spy but run by the unsuspecting user. As shown in Figure 3-13, the service program reads confidential data (to which the spy should not have access) and signals the data one bit at a time by locking or not locking some file (any file, the contents of which are arbitrary and not even modified). The service program and the spy need a common timing source, broken into intervals. To signal a 1, the service program locks the file for the interval; for a 0, it does not lock. Later in the interval the spy tries to lock the file itself. If the spy program cannot lock the file, it knows the service program must have locked the file, and thus the spy program concludes the service program is signaling a 1; if the spy program can lock the file, it knows the service program is signaling a 0.


This same approach can be used with disk storage quotas or other resources. With disk storage, the service program signals a 1 by creating an enormous file, so large that it consumes most of the available disk space. The spy program later tries to create a large file. If it succeeds, the spy program infers that the service program did not create a large file, and so the service program is signaling a 0; otherwise, the spy program infers a 1. Similarly the existence of a file or other resource of a particular name can be used to signal. Notice that the spy does not need access to a file itself; the mere existence of the file is adequate to signal. The spy can determine the existence of a file it cannot read by trying to create a file of the same name; if the request to create is rejected, the spy determines that the service program has such a file.


To signal more than one bit, the service program and the spy program signal one bit in each time interval. Figure 3-14 shows a service program signaling the string 100 by toggling the existence of a file.

In our final example, a storage channel uses a server of unique identifiers. Recall that some bakeries, banks, and other commercial establishments have a machine to distribute numbered tickets so that customers can be served in the order in which they arrived. Some computing systems provide a similar server of unique identifiers, usually numbers, used to name temporary files, to tag and track messages, or to record auditable events. Different processes can request the next unique identifier from the server. But two cooperating processes can use the server to send a signal: The spy process observes whether the numbers it receives are sequential or whether a number is missing. A missing number implies that the service program also requested a number, thereby signaling 1.


In all of these examples, the service program and the spy need access to a shared resource (such as a file, or even knowledge of the existence of a file) and a shared sense of time. As shown, shared resources are common in multiuser environments, where the resource may be as seemingly innocuous as whether a file exists, a device is free, or space remains on disk. A source of shared time is also typically available, since many programs need access to the current system time to set timers, to record the time at which events occur, or to synchronize activities. Karger and Wray [KAR91b] give a real-life example of a covert channel in the movement of a disk's arm and then describe ways to limit the potential information leakage from this channel.


Transferring data one bit at a time must seem awfully slow. But computers operate at such speeds that even the minuscule rate of 1 bit per millisecond (1/1000 second) would never be noticed but could easily be handled by two processes. At that rate of 1000 bits per second (which is unrealistically conservative), this entire book could be leaked in about two days. Increasing the rate by an order of magnitude or two, which is still quite conservative, reduces the transfer time to minutes.


Timing Channels


Other covert channels, called timing channels, pass information by using the speed at which things happen. Actually, timing channels are shared resource channels in which the shared resource is time.


A service program uses a timing channel to communicate by using or not using an assigned amount of computing time. In the simple case, a multiprogrammed system with two user processes divides time into blocks and allocates blocks of processing alternately to one process and the other. A process is offered processing time, but if the process is waiting for another event to occur and has no processing to do, it rejects the offer. The service process either uses its block (to signal a 1) or rejects its block (to signal a 0). Such a situation is shown in Figure 3-15, first with the service process and the spy's process alternating, and then with the service process communicating the string 101 to the spy's process. In the second part of the example, the service program wants to signal 0 in the third time block. It will do this by using just enough time to determine that it wants to send a 0 and then pause. The spy process then receives control for the remainder of the time block.

So far, all examples have involved just the service process and the spy's process. But in fact, multiuser computing systems typically have more than just two active processes. The only complications added by more processes are that the two cooperating processes must adjust their timings and deal with the possible interference from others. For example, with the unique identifier channel, other processes will also request identifiers. If on average n other processes will request m identifiers each, then the service program will request more than n*m identifiers for a 1 and no identifiers for a 0. The gap dominates the effect of all other processes. Also, the service process and the spy's process can use sophisticated coding techniques to compress their communication and detect and correct transmission errors caused by the effects of other unrelated processes.


Identifying Potential Covert Channels


In this description of covert channels, ordinary things, such as the existence of a file or time used for a computation, have been the medium through which a covert channel communicates. Covert channels are not easy to find because these media are so numerous and frequently used. Two relatively old techniques remain the standards for locating potential covert channels. One works by analyzing the resources of a system, and the other works at the source code level.


Shared Resource Matrix


Since the basis of a covert channel is a shared resource, the search for potential covert channels involves finding all shared resources and determining which processes can write to and read from the resources. The technique was introduced by Kemmerer [KEM83]. Although laborious, the technique can be automated.


To use this technique, you construct a matrix of resources (rows) and processes that can access them (columns). The matrix entries are R for "can read (or observe) the resource" and M for "can set (or modify, create, delete) the resource." For example, the file lock channel has the matrix shown in Table 3-3.



This pattern identifies two resources and two processes such that the second process is not allowed to read from the second resource. However, the first process can pass the information to the second by reading from the second resource and signaling the data through the first resource. Thus, this pattern implies the potential information flow as shown here.

Next, you complete the shared resource matrix by adding these implied information flows, and analyzing the matrix for undesirable flows. Thus, you can tell that the spy's process can read the confidential data by using a covert channel through the file lock, as shown in Table 3-4.

Information Flow Method


Denning [DEN76a] derived a technique for flow analysis from a program's syntax. Conveniently, this analysis can be automated within a compiler so that information flow potentials can be detected while a program is under development.


Using this method, we can recognize nonobvious flows of information between statements in a program. For example, we know that the statement B:=A, which assigns the value of A to the variable B, obviously supports an information flow from A to B. This type of flow is called an "explicit flow." Similarly, the pair of statements B:=A; C:=B indicates an information flow from A to C (by way of B). The conditional statement IF D=1 THEN B:=A has two flows: from A to B because of the assignment, but also from D to B, because the value of B can change if and only if the value of D is 1. This second flow is called an "implicit flow."


The statement B:=fcn(args) supports an information flow from the function fcn to B. At a superficial level, we can say that there is a potential flow from the arguments args to B. However, we could more closely analyze the function to determine whether the function's value depended on all of its arguments and whether any global values, not part of the argument list, affected the function's value. These information flows can be traced from the bottom up: At the bottom there must be functions that call no other functions, and we can analyze them and then use those results to analyze the functions that call them. By looking at the elementary functions first, we could say definitively whether there is a potential information flow from each argument to the function's result and whether there are any flows from global variables. Table 3-5 lists several examples of syntactic information flows.

Finally, we put all the pieces together to show which outputs are affected by which inputs. Although this analysis sounds frightfully complicated, it can be automated during the syntax analysis portion of compilation. This analysis can also be performed on the higher-level design specification.


Covert Channel Conclusions


Covert channels represent a real threat to secrecy in information systems. A covert channel attack is fairly sophisticated, but the basic concept is not beyond the capabilities of even an average programmer. Since the subverted program can be practically any user service, such as a printer utility, planting the compromise can be as easy as planting a virus or any other kind of Trojan horse. And recent experience has shown how readily viruses can be planted.


Capacity and speed are not problems; our estimate of 1000 bits per second is unrealistically low, but even at that rate much information leaks swiftly. With modern hardware architectures, certain covert channels inherent in the hardware design have capacities of millions of bits per second. And the attack does not require significant finance. Thus, the attack could be very effective in certain situations involving highly sensitive data.


For these reasons, security researchers have worked diligently to develop techniques for closing covert channels. The closure results have been bothersome; in ordinarily open environments, there is essentially no control over the subversion of a service program, nor is there an effective way of screening such programs for covert channels. And other than in a few very high security systems, operating systems cannot control the flow of information from a covert channel. The hardware-based channels cannot be closed, given the underlying hardware architecture.


For variety (or sobriety), Kurak and McHugh  present a very interesting analysis of covert signaling through graphic images. In their work they demonstrate that two different images can be combined by some rather simple arithmetic on the bit patterns of digitized pictures. The second image in a printed copy is undetectable to the human eye, but it can easily be separated and reconstructed by the spy receiving the digital version of the image. Byers explores the topic in the context of covert data passing through pictures on the Internet.

Although covert channel demonstrations are highly speculativereports of actual covert channel attacks just do not existthe analysis is sound. The mere possibility of their existence calls for more rigorous attention to other aspects of security, such as program development analysis, system architecture analysis, and review of output.

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