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Chapter: Security in Computing : Designing Trusted Operating Systems

Typical Operating System Flaws

Periodically throughout our analysis of operating system security features, we have used the phrase "exploit a vulnerability."

Typical Operating System Flaws


Periodically throughout our analysis of operating system security features, we have used the phrase "exploit a vulnerability." Throughout the years, many vulnerabilities have been uncovered in many operating systems. They have gradually been corrected, and the body of knowledge about likely weak spots has grown.


Known Vulnerabilities


In this section, we discuss typical vulnerabilities that have been uncovered in operating systems. Our goal is not to provide a "how-to" guide for potential penetrators of operating systems. Rather, we study these flaws to understand the careful analysis necessary in designing and testing operating systems. User interaction is the largest single source of operating system vulnerabilities, for several reasons:


  The user interface is performed by independent, intelligent hardware subsystems. The humancomputer interface often falls outside the security kernel or security restrictions implemented by an operating system.


  Code to interact with users is often much more complex and much more dependent on the specific device hardware than code for any other component of the computing system. For these reasons, it is harder to review this code for correctness, let alone to verify it formally.


  User interactions are often character oriented. Again, in the interest of fast data transfer, the operating systems designers may have tried to take shortcuts by limiting the number of instructions executed by the operating system during actual data transfer. Sometimes the instructions eliminated are those that enforce security policies as each character is transferred.


A second prominent weakness in operating system security reflects an ambiguity in access policy. On one hand, we want to separate users and protect their individual resources. On the other hand, users depend on shared access to libraries, utility programs, common data, and system tables. The distinction between isolation and sharing is not always clear at the policy level, so the distinction cannot be sharply drawn at implementation.


A third potential problem area is incomplete mediation. Recall that Saltzer [SAL74] recommended an operating system design in which every requested access was checked for proper authorization. However, some systems check access only once per user interface operation, process execution, or machine interval. The mechanism is available to implement full protection, but the policy decision on when to invoke the mechanism is not complete. Therefore, in the absence of any explicit requirement, system designers adopt the "most efficient" enforcement; that is, the one that will lead to the least use of machine resources.


Generality is a fourth protection weakness, especially among commercial operating systems for large computing systems. Implementers try to provide a means for users to customize their operating system installation and to allow installation of software packages written by other companies. Some of these packages, which themselves operate as part of the operating system, must execute with the same access privileges as the operating system. For example, there are programs that provide stricter access control than the standard control available from the operating system. The "hooks" by which these packages are installed are also trapdoors for any user to penetrate the operating system.


Thus, several well-known points of security weakness are common to many commercial operating systems. Let us consider several examples of actual vulnerabilities that have been exploited to penetrate operating systems.


Examples of Exploitations


Earlier, we discussed why the user interface is a weak point in many major operating systems. We begin our examples by exploring this weakness in greater detail. On some systems, after access has been checked to initiate a user operation, the operation continues without subsequent checking, leading to classic time-of-check to time-of-use flaws. Checking access permission with each character transferred is a substantial overhead for the protection system. The command often resides in the user's memory space. Any user can alter the source or destination address of the command after the operation has commenced. Because access has already been checked once, the new address will be used without further checkingit is not checked each time a piece of data is transferred. By exploiting this flaw, users have been able to transfer data to or from any memory address they desire.


Another example of exploitation involves a procedural problem. In one system a special supervisor function was reserved for the installation of other security packages. When executed, this supervisor call returned control to the user in privileged mode. The operations allowable in that mode were not monitored closely, so the supervisor call could be used for access control or for any other high-security system access. The particular supervisor call required some effort to execute, but it was fully available on the system. Additional checking should have been used to authenticate the program executing the supervisor request. As an alternative, the access rights for any subject entering under that supervisor request could have been limited to the objects necessary to perform the function of the added program.


The time-of-check to time-of-use mismatch described in Chapter 3 can introduce security problems, too. In an attack based on this vulnerability, access permission is checked for a particular user to access an object, such as a buffer. But between the time the access is approved and the access actually occurs, the user changes the designation of the object, so that instead of accessing the approved object, the user now accesses another, unacceptable, one.


Other penetrations have occurred by exploitation of more complex combinations of vulnerabilities. In general, however, security flaws in trusted operating systems have resulted from a faulty analysis of a complex situation, such as user interaction, or from an ambiguity or omission in the security policy. When simple security mechanisms are used to implement clear and complete security policies, the number of penetrations falls dramatically.

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