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Chapter: Security in Computing : Designing Trusted Operating Systems

What Is a Trusted System?

Before we begin to examine a trusted operating system in detail, let us look more carefully at the terminology involved in understanding and describing trust.

What Is a Trusted System?

Before we begin to examine a trusted operating system in detail, let us look more carefully at the terminology involved in understanding and describing trust. What would it take for us to consider something secure? The word secure reflects a dichotomy: Something is either secure or not secure. If secure, it should withstand all attacks, today, tomorrow, and a century from now. And if we claim that it is secure, you either accept our assertion (and buy and use it) or reject it (and either do not use it or use it but do not trust it). How does security differ from quality? If we claim that something is good, you are less interested in our claims and more interested in an objective appraisal of whether the thing meets your performance and functionality needs. From this perspective, security is only one facet of goodness or quality; you may choose to balance security with other characteristics (such as speed or user friendliness) to select a system that is best, given the choices you may have. In particular, the system you build or select may be pretty good, even though it may not be as secure as you would like it to be.


We say that software is trusted software if we know that the code has been rigorously developed and analyzed, giving us reason to trust that the code does what it is expected to do and nothing more. Typically, trusted code can be a foundation on which other, untrusted, code runs. That is, the untrusted system's quality depends, in part, on the trusted code; the trusted code establishes the baseline for security of the overall system. In particular, an operating system can be trusted software when there is a basis for trusting that it correctly controls the accesses of components or systems run from it. For example, the operating system might be expected to limit users' accesses to certain files.


To trust any program, we base our trust on rigorous analysis and testing, looking for certain key characteristics:


·      Functional correctness. The program does what it is supposed to, and it works correctly.


·      Enforcement of integrity. Even if presented erroneous commands or commands from unauthorized users, the program maintains the correctness of the data with which it has contact.


·      Limited privilege: The program is allowed to access secure data, but the access is minimized and neither the access rights nor the data are passed along to other untrusted programs or back to an untrusted caller.


·      Appropriate confidence level. The program has been examined and rated at a degree of trust appropriate for the kind of data and environment in which it is to be used.


Trusted software is often used as a safe way for general users to access sensitive data. Trusted programs are used to perform limited (safe) operations for users without allowing the users to have direct access to sensitive data.


Security professionals prefer to speak of trusted instead of secure operating systems. A trusted system connotes one that meets the intended security requirements, is of high enough quality, and justifies the user's confidence in that quality. That is, trust is perceived by the system's receiver or user, not by its developer, designer, or manufacturer. As a user, you may not be able to evaluate that trust directly. You may trust the design, a professional evaluation, or the opinion of a valued colleague. But in the end, it is your responsibility to sanction the degree of trust you require.


It is important to realize that there can be degrees of trust; unlike security, trust is not a dichotomy. For example, you trust certain friends with deep secrets, but you trust others only to give you the time of day. Trust is a characteristic that often grows over time, in accordance with evidence and experience. For instance, banks increase their trust in borrowers as the borrowers repay loans as expected; borrowers with good trust (credit) records can borrow larger amounts. Finally, trust is earned, not claimed or conferred. The comparison in Table 5-1 highlights some of these distinctions.


The adjective trusted appears many times in this chapter, as in trusted process (a process that can affect system security, or a process whose incorrect or malicious execution is capable of violating system security policy), trusted product (an evaluated and approved product), trusted software (the software portion of a system that can be relied upon to enforce security policy), trusted computing base (the set of all protection mechanisms within a computing system, including hardware, firmware, and software, that together enforce a unified security policy over a product or system), or trusted system (a system that employs sufficient hardware and software integrity measures to allow its use for processing sensitive information). These definitions are paraphrased from [NIS91b]. Common to these definitions are the concepts of


enforcement of security policy


sufficiency of measures and mechanisms




In studying trusted operating systems, we examine closely what makes them trustworthy.

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