Security-enhanced Linux available at NSA site
Dec 22, 2000, 18:51 (8 Talkback[s])
Subject: Security-enhanced Linux available at NSA site
Date: Fri, 22 Dec 2000 09:02:23 -0500 (EST)
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Pete Loscocco)
The Information Assurance Research Office of the National Security
Agency is pleased to make available a prototype version of a
security-enhanced Linux system (http://www.nsa.gov/selinux). This
version of Linux has a strong, flexible mandatory access control
architecture incorporated into the major subsystems of the kernel.
The system provides a mechanism to enforce the separation of
information based on confidentiality and integrity requirements.
This allows threats of tampering and bypassing of application
security mechanisms to be addressed and enables the confinement of
damage that can be caused by malicious or flawed applications. The
release also contains configuration files as an example of a
general-purpose security policy configuration designed to address a
number of security objectives. The system is being released under
the conditions of the GNU General Public License.
Recognizing the critical role of operating system security mechanisms
in supporting security at higher levels, NSA researchers have been
investigating an operating system architecture that can provide the
necessary security functionality in a manner that can meet the
security needs of a wide range of computing environments.
Previously, this architecture was implemented for the Mach and Fluke
operating systems. It has now been integrated into Linux.
We chose Linux as the platform for our work because its growing
success and open development environment provide an excellent
opportunity to demonstrate that this functionality can be successful
in a mainstream operating system and, at the same time, contribute
to the security of a widely used system. We are not presenting this
system as a complete security solution for Linux, nor are we
attempting to correct any flaws that may currently exist in Linux.
Instead, we are simply presenting an example of how mandatory access
controls that can confine the actions of any process, including a
superuser process, can be effectively added into Linux. We feel
that a Linux implementation offers the best opportunity for this
work to receive the widest possible review and perhaps be the basis
for additional security research.
The security mechanisms implemented in the system provide flexible
support for a wide range of security policies. The currently
implemented access controls are a combination of type enforcement
and role-based access control. The specific policy that is enforced
by the kernel is dictated by security policy configuration files
which include type enforcement and role-based access control
The type enforcement component defines an extensible set of domains
and types. Each process has an associated domain, and each object
has an associated type. The configuration files specify how domains
are allowed to access types and to interact with other domains.
They specify what types (when applied to programs) can be used to
enter each domain and the allowable transitions between domains.
They also specify automatic transitions between domains when
programs of certain types are executed. Such transitions ensure
that system processes and certain programs are placed into their own
automatically when executed.
The role-based access control component defines an extensible set of
roles. Each process has an associated role. This ensures that
system processes and those used for system administration can be
separated from those of ordinary users. The configuration files
specify the set of domains that may be entered by each role. As
users execute programs, transitions to other domains may, according
to the policy configuration, automatically occur to support changes
Using these security policy abstractions, it is possible to configure
the system to meet a wide range of security requirements. The release
includes an example of a general-purpose security policy
configuration designed to meet a number of security objectives as an
example of how this may be done. The flexibility of the system
allows the policy to be modified and extended to customize the
security policy as required for any given installation.
The example configuration controls access to various forms of raw
data and protects the integrity of the kernel. It defines distinct
types for the boot files, module object files, module utilities,
module configuration files and sysctl parameters, and it defines
separate domains for processes that require write access to these
files. It defines separate domains for the privileged module
utilities, and it restricts the use of the module capability to
these domains. It only allows the administrator domain to
transition to the privileged module utility domains.
The example configuration protects the integrity of system software,
system configuration information and system logs. It defines
distinct types for system libraries and binaries to control access
to these files. It only allows administrators to modify system
software. It defines separate types for system configuration files
and system logs and defines separate domains for programs that
require write access.
The example configuration seeks to confine the potential damage that
can be caused through the exploitation of a flaw in a process that
requires privileges, whether a system process or privilege-enhancing
(setuid or setgid) program. The policy configuration places these
privileged system processes and programs into separate domains, with
each domain limited to only those permissions it requires. Separate
types for objects are defined in the policy configuration as needed
to support least privilege for these domains. The configuration also
attempts to protect privileged processes from executing malicious
code. The policy configuration defines an executable type for the
program executed by each privileged process and only allows
transitions to the privileged domain by executing that type. When
possible, it limits privileged process domains to executing the
initial program for the domain, the system dynamic linker, and the
system shared libraries. The administrator domain is allowed to
execute programs created by administrators as well as system
software, but not programs created by ordinary users or system
Other objectives of the example configuration include protecting the
administrator role and domain from being entered without user
authentication, and preventing ordinary user processes from
interfering with system processes or administrator processes by
controlling the use of procfs, ptrace and signaling.
The security-enhanced Linux prototype was developed in conjunction
with research partners from the Secure Execution Environments group
at NAI Labs, Secure Computing Corporation (SCC), and the Mitre
Corporation. Researchers at the NSA implemented the security
architecture in the major subsystems of the Linux kernel, including
mandatory access controls for operations on processes, files, and
sockets. NAI Labs is working with the NSA in further developing and
configuring this security-enhanced Linux system, including the
development of additional kernel mandatory access controls and the
creation of a general purpose security policy configuration. The
security policy configuration drew from some preliminary
configuration work by SCC as a starting point, and it also drew from
NAI Labs' prior Domain and Type Enforcement (DTE) configuration
work. SCC, MITRE and NAI Labs are also assisting the NSA in
developing application security policies and enhanced utility
programs for the system.
There is still much work needed to develop a complete security
solution. In addition, due to resource limitations, we have not yet
been able to evaluate and optimize the performance of the security
mechanisms. The prototype was developed using the 2.2.12 kernel, and
we have not yet updated the system to the latest stable kernel
release. There is a version for 2.2.17, but it hasn't been
thoroughly tested. Currently, we only support the x86 architecture
and have only been able to test it on the Red Hat 6.1 distribution.
As the system is still a prototype, we are not looking for the
patches to be adopted into Linux 2.2, or even 2.4. Instead, we are
presenting the system as a starting point for discussions about the
possible inclusion of these valuable security features into the 2.5
kernel series. We are looking forward to building upon this work
with the Linux community.
If you are interested in experimenting with the system or getting
more information about it, please visit our web site at
http://www.nsa.gov/selinux. This site contains the source to the
system as well as some technical documentation about it. We are
currently developing a FAQ that will also provide additional
information. A mailing list, email@example.com, has been created
for questions and discussion. Subscribe to the mailing list by
sending mail to Majordomo@tycho.nsa.gov with "subscribe selinux" as
the body of the message. We welcome your feedback.
Security-enhanced Linux Project Leader
Information Assurance Research Office
National Security Agency