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Chapter: Security in Computing : Administering Security

Policy Issue Example: Government E-mail

Organizations develop computer security policies along the lines just described. Generally the policies lead to the familiar assets, vulnerabilities, and controls.

Policy Issue Example: Government E-mail


Organizations develop computer security policies along the lines just described. Generally the policies lead to the familiar assets, vulnerabilities, and controls. But sometimes you have to start with existing policieswhich may be formal documents or informal understandingsand consider how they apply in new situations. Is this action consistent with the goals of the policy and therefore acceptable? Applying policies can be like being a judge. As security professionals, we often focus on security policy without remembering the context in which we are making policy decisions. In this section, we look at a real-life issue to see how security policy fits into the broader scope of issues the security must address.


The U.S. government has proposed using network technologies to enhance its ability to interact with American citizens. Some people think that by employing functions such as electronic mail and World Wide Web access, the government could make more information available to citizens more quickly and at the same time be more responsive to citizens' needs. It is also hoped that costs would be reduced, a winning proposition for government and taxpayers alike.


This proposal has clear security implications. Indeed, having read this far in this book, you can probably list dozens of security issues that must be addressed to make this proposal work. The technology to design, build, and support this type of function exists, and the requirements, design, and implementation can easily be done from a technological point of view. But what about the other issues involved in building such a system? Neu et al. [NEU98] point out that the technology must be viewed in the larger institutional, organizational, and administrative contexts.

Much of what the government wants to do is already done. Many federal agencies have web sites providing large amounts of information to citizens, such as regulations, reports, and forms. This type of information is equally accessible to anyone who needs it. But other information exchange is more personalized: submitting completed tax forms, filing required paperwork for licenses and benefits, and asking specific questions about an individual's records, for example. Clearly the last type suggests stringent requirements relating to confidentiality, authentication, and integrity.


Neu et al. mention several security policy issues that must be addressed before such a system could be implemented. These include the following:


How do the commercial firms' security policies meet the government's security needs?


To enable secure communication, the government will likely want to use public key encryption. As we noted in Chapter 2, a certificate authority associates a public key with a particular user, establishing the user's identity. But for the government communication system, we must also know who has authority to access information and services and to initiate transactions. The processes required to perform identification are likely to be different from those performing authorization. In particular, identification may require direct interaction with a user, whereas authorization may require links among large databases.


A citizen may have more than one identity. For example, Jane Doe may be the same person as Mrs. Nathaniel Simmons, who is also the same person as the Trustee for the Estate of Mr. Robert Jones. In turn, each of these identities may have multiple authorities. How will the identification authorities interact with the authorization ones to enable these situations?


Sometimes the authorization does not need to be tied to a specific identity. For example, a government agency may need to know only that an individual is capable of paying for a service, much as a credit card company provides a credit rating. How will the authorization be able to release the minimum amount of information possible about an individual?


How will certificate authorities have a high degree of confidence in their identification of individuals?


How will certificate authorities deal with the need to view certain documents, such as birth certificates and passports, in person? This condition may mean that certificate authorities may be required to have local offices around the country.


Should there be a single certificate authority or many? A single provider can minimize the need for multiple keys and might save money by streamlining operations. But a single provider can also monitor all of a citizen's transactions, inviting abuse.


These issues are not trivial. Their solutions, not at all obvious, build on the concepts presented in this book. But they do so in a way that is not just technological. We can easily build a PKI to provide certificates to anyone we want. But how do we connect two certificates, connoting that the digital identities actually belong to the same person? In the real world you can be anonymous by purchasing something with cash; how can you be anonymous digitally?


But in addition to the security issues, there are also broader issues of management, responsibility, and law. Neu et al. note that, even when the technical issues are resolved, we have still to answer these questions:



           What happens if a certificate authority makes a mistake, either by identifying or authorizing the wrong person or by assigning keys to an impostor? What are the legal and financial implications of such an error? What if the error is made even though the certificate authority followed government guidelines?


           How will citizens create, record, and protect their keys? If smart cards are used to store keys, does that card become a national identity card?


           What legal protections are available to electronic transactions? For example, in the United States today, it is illegal to intercept someone's surface mail, but it is not illegal to intercept someone's electronic mail.


           How do we prove that official electronic communications, such as a summons or subpoena, have been read? Will a citizen be responsible for regularly checking e-mail for official documents?


           If law enforcement officials need to access encrypted electronic communications, how will they be able to perform the decryption? Will there be a method by which they can obtain the key? Does this require the citizen to participate?


What levels of protection are required for electronic documents? For instance, should medical records have the same level of protection as tax returns or driving violations? How do these levels apply across the different states that have very different laws? How does the protection address international law?


           How will every citizen be provided with an electronic mail address? What happens when an e-mail address changes? What security standards will apply to e-mail boxes and service providers?


           How will the government ensure equal access to electronic government services? Should the government provide help and training to first-time users?


           How will electronic communication be phased in to the current mix of paper and telephone communication?



These questions are not challenges to the technical side of computer security. But they are very much a part of the administrative side. It is not sufficient to know all the latest encryption algorithms; you also have to know how the use of computer security mechanisms fits into the broader context of how they are used and what they support. This example is included to introduce you to the procedural, administrative, policy, and privacy issues that a computer security administrator must consider. These questions highlight the degree to which security planning and policy must fit in with the larger policy issues that we, as individuals, organizations, and societies, must address. For this reason, in the next chapter we turn to the legal and ethical considerations of computer security.


But before we move to those concerns, we must cover one more topic involved in administering security: physical security. Protecting computing systems from physical harm is no less important than protecting data from modification in transit through a network. In the next section we briefly survey physical security vulnerabilities and controls.

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