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Chapter: Security in Computing : Protection in General-Purpose Operating Systems

Protected Objects and Methods of Protection

We begin by reviewing the history of protection in operating systems. This background helps us understand what kinds of things operating systems can protect and what methods are available for protecting them.

Protected Objects and Methods of Protection


We begin by reviewing the history of protection in operating systems. This background helps us understand what kinds of things operating systems can protect and what methods are available for protecting them.


A Bit of History


Once upon a time, there were no operating systems: Users entered their programs directly into the machine in binary by means of switches. In many cases, program entry was done by physical manipulation of a toggle switch; in other cases, the entry was performed with a more complex electronic method, by means of an input device such as a keyboard. Because each user had exclusive use of the computing system, users were required to schedule blocks of time for running the machine. These users were responsible for loading their own libraries of support routinesassemblers, compilers, shared subprogramsand "cleaning up" after use by removing any sensitive code or data.


The first operating systems were simple utilities, called executives, designed to assist individual programmers and to smooth the transition from one user to another. The early executives provided linkers and loaders for relocation, easy access to compilers and assemblers, and automatic loading of subprograms from libraries. The executives handled the tedious aspects of programmer support, focusing on a single programmer during execution.


Operating systems took on a much broader role (and a different name) as the notion of multiprogramming was implemented. Realizing that two users could interleave access to the resources of a single computing system, researchers developed concepts such as scheduling, sharing, and parallel use. Multiprogrammed operating systems, also known as monitors, oversaw each program's execution. Monitors took an active role, whereas executives were passive. That is, an executive stayed in the background, waiting to be called into service by a requesting user. But a monitor actively asserted control of the computing system and gave resources to the user only when the request was consistent with general good use of the system. Similarly, the executive waited for a request and provided service on demand; the monitor maintained control over all resources, permitting or denying all computing and loaning resources to users as they needed them.


Multiprogramming brought another important change to computing. When a single person was using a system, the only force to be protected against was the user himself or herself. A user making an error may have felt foolish, but one user could not adversely affect the computation of any other user. However, multiple users introduced more complexity and risk. User A might rightly be angry if User B's programs or data had a negative effect on A's program's execution. Thus, protecting one user's programs and data from other users' programs became an important issue in multiprogrammed operating systems.


Protected Objects


In fact, the rise of multiprogramming meant that several aspects of a computing system required protection:


·      memory


·      sharable I/O devices, such as disks


·      serially reusable I/O devices, such as printers and tape drives


·      sharable programs and subprocedures


·      networks


·      sharable data


As it assumed responsibility for controlled sharing, the operating system had to protect these objects. In the following sections, we look at some of the mechanisms with which operating systems have enforced these objects' protection. Many operating system protection mechanisms have been supported by hardware. But, as noted in Sidebar 4-1, that approach is not always possible.


Security Methods of Operating Systems


The basis of protection is separation: keeping one user's objects separate from other users. Rushby and Randell [RUS83] note that separation in an operating system can occur in several ways:


Sidebar 4-1: Hardware-Enforced Protection


From the 1960s to the 1980s, vendors produced both hardware and the software to run on it. The major mainframe operating systemssuch as IBM's MVS, Digital Equipment's VAX, and Burroughs's and GE's operating systems, as well as research systems such as KSOS, PSOS, KVM, Multics, and SCOMPwere designed to run on one family of hardware. The VAX family, for example, used a hardware design that implemented four distinct protection levels: Two were reserved for the operating system, a third for system utilities, and the last went to users' applications. This structure put essentially three distinct walls around the most critical functions, including those that implemented security. Anything that allowed the user to compromise the wall between user state and utility state still did not give the user access to the most sensitive protection features. A BiiN operating system from the late 1980s offered an amazing 64,000 different levels of protection (or separation) enforced by the hardware.


Two factors changed this situation. First, the U.S. government sued IBM in 1969, claiming that IBM had exercised unlawful monopolistic practices. As a consequence, during the 1970s IBM made its hardware available to run with other vendors' operating systems (thereby opening its specifications to competitors). This relaxation encouraged more openness in operating system selection: Users were finally able to buy hardware from one manufacturer and go elsewhere for some or all of the operating system. Second, the Unix operating system, begun in the early 1970s, was designed to be largely independent of the hardware on which it ran. A small kernel had to be recoded for each different kind of hardware platform, but the bulk of the operating system, running on top of that kernel, could be ported without change.


These two situations together meant that the operating system could no longer depend on hardware support for all its critical functionality. So, although an operating system might still be structured to reach several states, the underlying hardware might enforce separation between only two of those states, with the remainder being enforced in software.


Today three of the most prevalent families of operating systemsthe Windows NT/2000/XP series, Unix, and Linuxrun on many different kinds of hardware. (Only Apple's Mac OS is strongly integrated with its hardware base.) The default expectation is one level of hardwareenforced separation (two states). This situation means that an attacker is only one step away from complete system compromise through a "get_root" exploit. (See this chapter's "Where the Field Is Headed" section to read of a recent Microsoft initiative to reintroduce hardware-enforced separation for security-critical code and data.)


·      physical separation, in which different processes use different physical objects, such as separate printers for output requiring different levels of security


·      temporal separation, in which processes having different security requirements are executed at different times


·      logical separation, in which users operate under the illusion that no other processes exist, as when an operating system constrains a program's accesses so that the program cannot access objects outside its permitted domain


·      cryptographic separation, in which processes conceal their data and computations in such a way that they are unintelligible to outside processes


Of course, combinations of two or more of these forms of separation are also possible.


The categories of separation are listed roughly in increasing order of complexity to implement, and, for the first three, in decreasing order of the security provided. However, the first two approaches are very stringent and can lead to poor resource utilization. Therefore, we would like to shift the burden of protection to the operating system to allow concurrent execution of processes having different security needs.


But separation is only half the answer. We want to separate users and their objects, but we also want to be able to provide sharing for some of those objects. For example, two users with different security levels may want to invoke the same search algorithm or function call. We would like the users to be able to share the algorithms and functions without compromising their individual security needs. An operating system can support separation and sharing in several ways, offering protection at any of several levels.


  Do not protect. Operating systems with no protection are appropriate when sensitive procedures are being run at separate times.


  Isolate. When an operating system provides isolation, different processes running concurrently are unaware of the presence of each other. Each process has its own address space, files, and other objects. The operating system must confine each process somehow so that the objects of the other processes are completely concealed.


  Share all or share nothing. With this form of protection, the owner of an object declares it to be public or private. A public object is available to all users, whereas a private object is available only to its owner.


Share via access limitation. With protection by access limitation, the operating system checks the allowability of each user's potential access to an object. That is, access control is implemented for a specific user and a specific object. Lists of acceptable actions guide the operating system in determining whether a particular user should have access to a particular object. In some sense, the operating system acts as a guard between users and objects, ensuring that only authorized accesses occur.


  Share by capabilities. An extension of limited access sharing, this form of protection allows dynamic creation of sharing rights for objects. The degree of sharing can depend on the owner or the subject, on the context of the computation, or on the object itself.


  Limit use of an object. This form of protection limits not just the access to an object but the use made of that object after it has been accessed. For example, a user may be allowed to view a sensitive document, but not to print a copy of it. More powerfully, a user may be allowed access to data in a database to derive statistical summaries (such as average salary at a particular grade level), but not to determine specific data values (salaries of individuals).


Again, these modes of sharing are arranged in increasing order of difficulty to implement, but also in increasing order of fineness of protection they provide. A given operating system may provide different levels of protection for different objects, users, or situations.


When we think about data, we realize that access can be controlled at various levels: the bit, the byte, the element or word, the field, the record, the file, or the volume. Thus, the granularity of control concerns us. The larger the level of object controlled, the easier it is to implement access control. However, sometimes the operating system must allow access to more than the user needs. For example, with large objects, a user needing access only to part of an object (such as a single record in a file) must be given access to the entire object (the whole file).


Let us examine in more detail several different kinds of objects and their specific kinds of protection.

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