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Chapter: Fundamentals of Database Systems : Additional Database Topics: Security and Distribution : Database Security

Introduction to Flow Control

Flow control regulates the distribution or flow of information among accessible objects.

Introduction to Flow Control


Flow control regulates the distribution or flow of information among accessible objects. A flow between object X and object Y occurs when a program reads values from X and writes values into Y. Flow controls check that information contained in some objects does not flow explicitly or implicitly into less protected objects. Thus, a user cannot get indirectly in Y what he or she cannot get directly in X. Active flow control began in the early 1970s. Most flow controls employ some concept of security class; the transfer of information from a sender to a receiver is allowed only if the receiver’s security class is at least as privileged as the sender’s. Examples of a flow control include preventing a service program from leaking a customer’s confidential data, and blocking the transmission of secret military data to an unknown classified user.


A flow policy specifies the channels along which information is allowed to move. The simplest flow policy specifies just two classes of information—confidential (C) and nonconfidential (N)—and allows all flows except those from class C to class N. This policy can solve the confinement problem that arises when a service program handles data such as customer information, some of which may be confidential. For example, an income-tax computing service might be allowed to retain a customer’s address and the bill for services rendered, but not a customer’s income or deductions.


Access control mechanisms are responsible for checking users’ authorizations for resource access: Only granted operations are executed. Flow controls can be enforced by an extended access control mechanism, which involves assigning a security class (usually called the clearance) to each running program. The program is allowed to read a particular memory segment only if its security class is as high as that of the segment. It is allowed to write in a segment only if its class is as low as that of the segment. This automatically ensures that no information transmitted by the person can move from a higher to a lower class. For example, a military program with a secret clearance can only read from objects that are unclassified and confidential and can only write into objects that are secret or top secret.


Two types of flow can be distinguished: explicit flows, occurring as a consequence of assignment instructions, such as Y:= f(X1,Xn,), and implicit flows generated by conditional instructions, such as if f(Xm+1, ..., Xn) then Y:= f (X1,Xm).


Flow control mechanisms must verify that only authorized flows, both explicit and implicit, are executed. A set of rules must be satisfied to ensure secure information flows. Rules can be expressed using flow relations among classes and assigned to information, stating the authorized flows within a system. (An information flow from A to B occurs when information associated with A affects the value of infor-mation associated with B. The flow results from operations that cause information transfer from one object to another.) These relations can define, for a class, the set of classes where information (classified in that class) can flow, or can state the specific relations to be verified between two classes to allow information to flow from one to the other. In general, flow control mechanisms implement the controls by assigning a label to each object and by specifying the security class of the object. Labels are then used to verify the flow relations defined in the model.


Covert Channels


A covert channel allows a transfer of information that violates the security or the policy. Specifically, a covert channel allows information to pass from a higher classification level to a lower classification level through improper means. Covert channels can be classified into two broad categories: timing channels and storage. The distinguishing feature between the two is that in a timing channel the information is conveyed by the timing of events or processes, whereas storage channels do not require any temporal synchronization, in that information is conveyed by accessing system information or what is otherwise inaccessible to the user.


In a simple example of a covert channel, consider a distributed database system in which two nodes have user security levels of secret (S) and unclassified (U). In order for a transaction to commit, both nodes must agree to commit. They mutually can only do operations that are consistent with the *-property, which states that in any transaction, the S site cannot write or pass information to the U site. However, if these two sites collude to set up a covert channel between them, a transaction involving secret data may be committed unconditionally by the U site, but the S site may do so in some predefined agreed-upon way so that certain information may be passed from the S site to the U site, violating the *-property. This may be achieved where the transaction runs repeatedly, but the actions taken by the S site implicitly convey information to the U site. Measures such as locking, which we discussed in Chapters 22 and 23, prevent concurrent writing of the information by users with different security levels into the same objects, preventing the storage-type covert channels. Operating systems and distributed databases provide control over the multiprogramming of operations that allows a sharing of resources without the possibility of encroachment of one program or process into another’s memory or other resources in the system, thus preventing timing-oriented covert channels. In general, covert channels are not a major problem in well-implemented robust data-base implementations. However, certain schemes may be contrived by clever users that implicitly transfer information.


Some security experts believe that one way to avoid covert channels is to disallow programmers to actually gain access to sensitive data that a program will process 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 brokerage firms do not need to know what buy and sell orders exist for clients. During program testing, access to a form of real data or some sample test data may be justifiable, but not after the program has been accepted for regular use.

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