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Chapter: Security in Computing : Designing Trusted Operating Systems

Security Features of Trusted Operating Systems

Unlike regular operating systems, trusted systems incorporate technology to address both features and assurance. The design of a trusted system is delicate, involving selection of an appropriate and consistent set of features together with an appropriate degree of assurance that the features have been assembled and implemented correctly.

Security Features of Trusted Operating Systems


Unlike regular operating systems, trusted systems incorporate technology to address both features and assurance. The design of a trusted system is delicate, involving selection of an appropriate and consistent set of features together with an appropriate degree of assurance that the features have been assembled and implemented correctly. Figure 5-11 illustrates how a trusted operating system differs from an ordinary one. Compare it with Figure 5-10. Notice how objects are accompanied or surrounded by an access control mechanism, offering far more protection and separation than does a conventional operating system. In addition, memory is separated by user, and data and program libraries have controlled sharing and separation.


In this section, we consider in more detail the key features of a trusted operating system, including


  user identification and authentication


mandatory access control


  discretionary access control


  object reuse protection


  complete mediation


  trusted path




  audit log reduction


  intrusion detection


We consider each of these features in turn.


Identification and Authentication


Identification is at the root of much of computer security. We must be able to tell who is requesting access to an object, and we must be able to verify the subject's identity. As we see shortly, most access control, whether mandatory or discretionary, is based on accurate identification. Thus as described in Chapter 4, identification involves two steps: finding out who the access requester is and verifying that the requester is indeed who he/she/it claims to be. That is, we want to establish an identity and then authenticate or verify that identity. Trusted operating systems require secure identification of individuals, and each individual must be uniquely identified.


Mandatory and Discretionary Access Control


Mandatory access control (MAC) means that access control policy decisions are made beyond the control of the individual owner of an object. A central authority determines what information is to be accessible by whom, and the user cannot change access rights. An example of MAC occurs in military security, where an individual data owner does not decide who has a top-secret clearance; neither can the owner change the classification of an object from top secret to secret.


By contrast, discretionary access control (DAC), as its name implies, leaves a certain amount of access control to the discretion of the object's owner or to anyone else who is authorized to control the object's access. The owner can determine who should have access rights to an object and what those rights should be. Commercial environments typically use DAC to allow anyone in a designated group, and sometimes additional named individuals, to change access. For example, a corporation might establish access controls so that the accounting group can have access to personnel files. But the corporation may also allow Ana and Jose to access those files, too, in their roles as directors of the Inspector General's office. Typically, DAC access rights can change dynamically. The owner of the accounting file may add Renee and remove Walter from the list of allowed accessors, as business needs dictate.


MAC and DAC can both be applied to the same object. MAC has precedence over DAC, meaning that of all those who are approved for MAC access, only those who also pass DAC will actually be allowed to access the object. For example, a file may be classified secret, meaning that only people cleared for secret access can potentially access the file. But of those millions of people granted secret access by the government, only people on project "deer park" or in the "environmental" group or at location "Fort Hamilton" are actually allowed access.


Object Reuse Protection


One way that a computing system maintains its efficiency is to reuse objects. The operating system controls resource allocation, and as a resource is freed for use by other users or programs, the operating system permits the next user or program to access the resource. But reusable objects must be carefully controlled, lest they create a serious vulnerability. To see why, consider what happens when a new file is created. Usually, space for the file comes from a pool of freed, previously used space on a disk or other storage device. Released space is returned to the pool "dirty," that is, still containing the data from the previous user. Because most users would write to a file before trying to read from it, the new user's data obliterate the previous owner's, so there is no inappropriate disclosure of the previous user's information. However, a malicious user may claim a large amount of disk space and then scavenge for sensitive data. This kind of attack is called object reuse . The problem is not limited to disk; it can occur with main memory, processor registers and storage, other magnetic media (such as disks and tapes), or any other reusable storage medium.


To prevent object reuse leakage, operating systems clear (that is, overwrite) all space to be reassigned before allowing the next user to have access to it. Magnetic media are particularly vulnerable to this threat. Very precise and expensive equipment can sometimes separate the most recent data from the data previously recorded, from the data before that, and so forth. This threat, called magnetic remanence, is beyond the scope of this book. For more information, see [NCS91a]. In any case, the operating system must take responsibility for "cleaning" the resource before permitting access to it. (See Sidebar 5-4 for a different kind of persistent data.)




Complete Mediation


For mandatory or discretionary access control to be effective, all accesses must be controlled. It is insufficient to control access only to files if the attack will acquire access through memory or an outside port or a network or a covert channel. The design and implementation difficulty of a trusted operating system rises significantly as more paths for access must be controlled. Highly trusted operating systems perform complete mediation, meaning that all accesses are checked.


Trusted Path


One way for a malicious user to gain inappropriate access is to "spoof" users, making them think they are communicating with a legitimate security enforcement system when in fact their keystrokes and commands are being intercepted and analyzed. For example, a malicious spoofer may place a phony user ID and password system between the user and the legitimate system. As the illegal system queries the user for identification information, the spoofer captures the real user ID and password; the spoofer can use these bona fide entry data to access the system later on, probably with malicious intent. Thus, for critical operations such as setting a password or changing access permissions, users want an unmistakable communication, called a trusted path, to ensure that they are supplying protected information only to a legitimate receiver. On some trusted systems, the user invokes a trusted path by pressing a unique key sequence that, by design, is intercepted directly by the security enforcement software; on other trusted systems, security-relevant changes can be made only at system startup, before any processes other than the security enforcement code run.



Sidebar 5-4: Hidden, But Not Forgotten


When is something gone? When you press the delete key, it goes away, right? Wrong.


By now you know that deleted files are not really deleted; they are moved to the recycle bin. Deleted mail messages go to the trash folder. And temporary Internet pages hang around for a few days waiting for repeat interest. But you sort of expect keystrokes to disappear with the delete key.


Microsoft Word saves all changes and comments since a document was created. Suppose you and a colleague collaborate on a document, you refer to someone else's work, and your colleague inserts the comment "this research is rubbish." You concur, so you delete the reference and your colleague's comment. Then you submit the paper to a journal for review and, as luck would have it, your paper is sent to the author whose work you disparaged. Then the author turns on change marking and finds not just the deleted reference but the deletion of your colleague's comment. (See [BYE04].) If you really wanted to remove that text, you should have used the Microsoft Hidden Data Removal Tool. (Of course, inspecting the file with a binary editor is the only way you can be sure the offending text is truly gone.)


The Adobe PDF document format is a simpler format intended to provide a platform-independent way to display (and print) documents. Some people convert a Word document to PDF to eliminate hidden sensitive data. That does remove the change- tracking data; but it preserves even invisible output. Some people create a white box to paste over data to be hidden, for example, to cut out part of a map or to hide a profit column in a table. When you print the file, the box hides your sensitive information. But the PDF format preserves all layers in a document, so your recipient can effectively peel off the white box to reveal the hidden content. The NSA issued a report detailing steps to ensure that deletions are truly deleted [NSA05].


Or if you want to show that something was there and has been deleted, you can do that with the Microsoft Redaction Tool, which, presumably, deletes the underlying text and replaces it with a thick black line.



Accountability and Audit


A security-relevant action may be as simple as an individual access to an object, such as a file, or it may be as major as a change to the central access control database affecting all subsequent accesses. Accountability usually entails maintaining a log of security-relevant events that have occurred, listing each event and the person responsible for the addition, deletion, or change. This audit log must obviously be protected from outsiders, and every security-relevant event must be recorded.


Audit Log Reduction


Theoretically, the general notion of an audit log is appealing because it allows responsible parties to evaluate all actions that affect all protected elements of the system. But in practice an audit log may be too difficult to handle, owing to volume and analysis. To see why, consider what information would have to be collected and analyzed. In the extreme (such as where the data involved can affect a business' viability or a nation's security), we might argue that every modification or even each character read from a file is potentially security relevant; the modification could affect the integrity of data, or the single character could divulge the only really sensitive part of an entire file. And because the path of control through a program is affected by the data the program processes, the sequence of individual instructions is also potentially security relevant. If an audit record were to be created for every access to a single character from a file and for every instruction executed, the audit log would be enormous. (In fact, it would be impossible to audit every instruction, because then the audit commands themselves would have to be audited. In turn, these commands would be implemented by instructions that would have to be audited, and so on forever.)


In most trusted systems, the problem is simplified by an audit of only the opening (first access to) and closing of (last access to) files or similar objects. Similarly, objects such as individual memory locations, hardware registers, and instructions are not audited. Even with these restrictions, audit logs tend to be very large. Even a simple word processor may open fifty or more support modules (separate files) when it begins, it may create and delete a dozen or more temporary files during execution, and it may open many more drivers to handle specific tasks such as complex formatting or printing. Thus, one simple program can easily cause a hundred files to be opened and closed, and complex systems can cause thousands of files to be accessed in a relatively short time. On the other hand, some systems continuously read from or update a single file. A bank teller may process transactions against the general customer accounts file throughout the entire day; what is significant is not that the teller accessed the accounts file, but which entries in the file were accessed. Thus, audit at the level of file opening and closing is in some cases too much data and in other cases not enough to meet security needs.


A final difficulty is the "needle in a haystack" phenomenon. Even if the audit data could be limited to the right amount, typically many legitimate accesses and perhaps one attack will occur. Finding the one attack access out of a thousand legitimate accesses can be difficult. A corollary to this problem is the one of determining who or what does the analysis. Does the system administrator sit and analyze all data in the audit log? Or do the developers write a program to analyze the data? If the latter, how can we automatically recognize a pattern of unacceptable behavior? These issues are open questions being addressed not only by security specialists but also by experts in artificial intelligence and pattern recognition.


Sidebar 5-5 illustrates how the volume of audit log data can get out of hand very quickly. Some trusted systems perform audit reduction, using separate tools to reduce the volume of the audit data. In this way, if an event occurs, all the data have been recorded and can be consulted directly. However, for most analysis, the reduced audit log is enough to review.


Intrusion Detection


Closely related to audit reduction is the ability to detect security lapses, ideally while they occur. As we have seen in the State Department example, there may well be too much information in the audit log for a human to analyze, but the computer can help correlate independent data. Intrusion detection software builds patterns of normal system usage, triggering an alarm any time the usage seems abnormal. After a decade of promising research results in intrusion detection, products are now commercially available. Some trusted operating systems include a primitive degree of intrusion detection software. See Chapter 7 for a more detailed description of intrusion detection systems.


Although the problems are daunting, there have been many successful implementations of trusted operating systems. In the following section, we examine some of them. In particular, we consider three properties: kernelized design (a result of least privilege and economy of mechanism), isolation (the logical extension of least common mechanism), and ring-structuring (an example of open design and complete mediation).



Sidebar 5-5: Theory vs. Practice: Audit Data Out of Control


In the 1980s, the U.S. State Department was enhancing the security of the automated systems that handled diplomatic correspondence among its embassies worldwide. One of the security requirements for an operating system enhancement requested an audit log of every transaction related to protected documents. The requirement included the condition that the system administrator was to review the audit log daily, looking for signs of malicious behavior.


In theory, this requirement was sensible, since revealing the contents of protected documents could at least embarrass the nation, even endanger it. But, in fact, the requirement was impractical. The State Department ran a test system with five users, printing out the audit log for ten minutes. At the end of the test period, the audit log generated a stack of paper more than a foot high! Because the actual system involved thousands of users working around the clock, the test demonstrated that it would have been impossible for the system administrator to review the logeven if that were all the system administrator had to do every day.


The State Department went on to consider other options for detecting malicious behavior, including audit log reduction and automated review of the log's contents.

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