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Chapter: Security in Computing : Database and Data Mining Security

Multilevel Databases

So far, we have considered data in only two categories: either sensitive or nonsensitive. We have alluded to some data items being more sensitive than others, but we have allowed only yes-or-no access.

Multilevel Databases


So far, we have considered data in only two categories: either sensitive or nonsensitive. We have alluded to some data items being more sensitive than others, but we have allowed only yes-or-no access. Our presentation may have implied that sensitivity was a function of the attribute, the column in which the data appeared, although nothing we have done depended on this interpretation of sensitivity. Such a model appears in Table 6-15, where two columns are identified (by shading) as sensitive. In fact, though, sensitivity is determined not just by attribute but also in ways that we investigate in the next section.


Sidebar 6-5: Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays?


Most people would answer "Shakespeare" when asked who wrote any of the plays attributed to the bard. But for 150 years literary scholars have had their doubts. In 1852, it was suggested that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, wrote at least some of the works. For decades scholarly debate raged, citing what was known of Shakespeare's education, travels, work schedule, and the few other facts known about him.


In the 1980s a new analytic technique was developed: computerized analysis of text. Different researchers studied qualities such as word choice, images used in different plays, word pairs, sentence structure, and the likeany structural element that could show similarity or dissimilarity. (See, for example, [FAR96a] and [KAR01], as well as www.shakespearefellowship.org.) The debate continues as researchers develop more and more qualities to correlate among databases (the language of the plays and other works attributed to Shakespeare). The debate will probably never be settled.


But the technique has proven useful. In 1996, an author called Anonymous published the novel Primary Colors. Many people tried to determine who the author was. But Donald Foster, a professor at Vassar College, aided by some simple computer tools, attributed the novel to Joe Klein, who later admitted being the author. Neumann [NEU96] in the Risks forum, notes how hard it is to lie convincingly, even having tried to alter your writing style, given "telephone records, credit-card records, airplane reservation databases, library records, snoopy neighbors, coincidental encounters, etc."in short, given aggregation.


The approach has uses outside the literary field. In 2002 the SAS Institute, vendors of statistical analysis software, introduced data mining software intended to find patterns in old e-mail messages and other masses of text. The company suggests the tool might be useful in identifying and blocking spam. Another possible use is detecting lies, or perhaps just flagging potential inconsistencies. It could also help locate the author of malicious code.



The Case for Differentiated Security


Consider a database containing data on U.S. government expenditures. Some of the expenditures are for paper clips, which is not sensitive information. Some salary expenditures are subject to privacy requirements. Individual salaries are sensitive, but the aggregate (for example, the total Agriculture Department payroll, which is a matter of public record) is not sensitive. Expenses of certain military operations are more sensitive; for example, the total amount the United States spends for ballistic missiles, which is not public. There are even operations known only to a few people, and so the amount spent on these operations, or even the fact that anything was spent on such an operation, is highly sensitive.


Table 6-15 lists employee information. It may in fact be the case that Davis is a temporary employee hired for a special project, and her whole record has a different sensitivity from the others. Perhaps the phone shown for Garland is her private line, not available to the public. We can refine the sensitivity of the data by depicting it as shown in Table 6-16.


From this description, three characteristics of database security emerge.


The security of a single element may be different from the security of other elements of the same record or from other values of the same attribute. That is, the security of one element may differ from that of other elements of the same row or column. This situation implies that security should be implemented for each individual element.


Two levelssensitive and nonsensitiveare inadequate to represent some security situations. Several grades of security may be needed. These grades may represent ranges of allowable knowledge, which may overlap. Typically, the security grades form a lattice.


The security of an aggregatea sum, a count, or a group of values in a databasemay differ from the security of the individual elements. The security of the aggregate may be higher or lower than that of the individual elements.


These three principles lead to a model of security not unlike the military model of security encountered in Chapter 5, in which the sensitivity of an object is defined as one of n levels and is further separated into compartments by category.




Recall that the military classification model applied originally to paper documents and was adapted to computers. It is fairly easy to classify and track a single sheet of paper or, for that matter, a paper file, a computer file, or a single program or process. It is entirely different to classify individual data items.


For obvious reasons, an entire sheet of paper is classified at one level, even though certain words, such as and, the, or of, would be innocuous in any context, and other words, such as codewords like Manhattan project, might be sensitive in any context. But defining the sensitivity of each value in a database is similar to applying a sensitivity level to each individual word of a document.


And the problem is still more complicated. The word Manhattan by itself is not sensitive, nor is project. However, the combination of these words produces the sensitive codeword Manhattan project. A similar situation occurs in databases. Therefore, not only can every element of a database have a distinct sensitivity, every combination of elements can also have a distinct sensitivity. Furthermore, the combination can be more or less sensitive than any of its elements.


So what would we need in order to associate a sensitivity level with each value of a database? First, we need an access control policy to dictate which users may have access to what data. Typically, to implement this policy each data item is marked to show its access limitations. Second, we need a means to guarantee that the value has not been changed by an unauthorized person. These two requirements address both confidentiality and integrity.


Security Issues


In Chapter 1 , we introduced three general security concerns: integrity, confidentiality, and availability. In this section, we extend the first two of these concepts to include their special roles for multilevel databases.




Even in a single-level database in which all elements have the same degree of sensitivity, integrity is a tricky problem. In the case of multilevel databases, integrity becomes both more important and more difficult to achieve. Because of the *-property for access control, a process that reads high-level data is not allowed to write a file at a lower level. Applied to databases, however, this principle says that a high-level user should not be able to write a lower-level data element.


The problem with this interpretation arises when the DBMS must be able to read all records in the database and write new records for any of the following purposes: to do backups, to scan the database to answer queries, to reorganize the database according to a user's processing needs, or to update all records of the database.


When people encounter this problem, they handle it by using trust and common sense. People who have access to sensitive information are careful not to convey it to uncleared individuals. In a computing system, there are two choices: Either the process cleared at a high level cannot write to a lower level or the process must be a "trusted process," the computer equivalent of a person with a security clearance.





Users trust that a database will provide correct information, meaning that the data are consistent and accurate. As indicated earlier, some means of protecting confidentiality may result in small changes to the data. Although these perturbations should not affect statistical analyses, they may produce two different answers representing the same underlying data value in response to two differently formed queries. In the multilevel case, two different users operating at two different levels of security might get two different answers to the same query. To preserve confidentiality, precision is sacrificed.


Enforcing confidentiality also leads to unknowing redundancy. Suppose a personnel specialist works at one level of access permission. The specialist knows that Bob Hill works for the company. However, Bob's record does not appear on the retirement payment roster. The specialist assumes this omission is an error and creates a record for Bob.


The reason that no record for Bob appears is that Bob is a secret agent, and his employment with the company is not supposed to be public knowledge. A record on Bob actually is in the file but, because of his special position, his record is not accessible to the personnel specialist. The DBMS cannot reject the record from the personnel specialist because doing so would reveal that there already is such a record at a sensitivity too high for the specialist to see. The creation of the new record means that there are now two records for Bob Hill: one sensitive and one not, as shown in Table 6-17. This situation is called polyinstantiation, meaning that one record can appear (be instantiated) many times, with a different level of confidentiality each time.



This problem is exacerbated because Bob Hill is a common enough name that there might be two different people in the database with that name. Thus, merely scanning the database (from a high-sensitivity level) for duplicate names is not a satisfactory way to find records entered unknowingly by people with only low clearances.


We might also find other reasons, unrelated to sensitivity level, that result in polyinstantiation. For example, Mark Thyme worked for Acme Corporation for 30 years and retired. He is now drawing a pension from Acme, so he appears as a retiree in one personnel record. But Mark tires of being home and is rehired as a part-time contractor; this new work generates a second personnel record for Mark. Each is a legitimate employment record. In our zeal to reduce polyinstantiation, we must be careful not to eliminate legitimate records such as these.

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