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Linux kernel to have NSA inside?

By JT Smith on March 23, 2001 (8:00:00 AM)

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- By Joab Jackson -
Later this month, when Linus Torvalds and the other movers and shakers gather for the Linux kernel summit to map out the development course for Linux kernel 2.5, they'll be hit with a proposed modification from an unlikely party -- the U.S. National Security Agency. There, Peter Loscocco, of NSA's Information and Assurance Research group, will propose a mandatory access control (MAC) architecture for the Linux kernel, a piece of code that could go a long way toward making the Penguin OS the obvious choice for security-minded businesses and government agencies.
But will normally open-minded Linux devotees accept code from America's premier spy agency?

This month, members of the Maryland Columbia Area Linux Users Group (CALUG) got a peek at Security-Enhanced Linux (SELinux), as the modified-by-NSA version of Linux is called. CALUG coordinator Randy Schrickel, who does some consulting for NSA himself, knew a bit about NSA's work. And because NSA's headquarters at Fort Meade is near Columbia, Schrickel called the agency to ask if someone would be willing to come to the group's meeting to talk about it.

It was a treat. That night, in a second-floor room in an otherwise empty office building, Loscocco, wearing most unspy-like jeans and a faded red shirt, and the likewise casually attired Steven Smalley, of NSA contractor NAI Labs' Secure Executions Environments group, gave an account of how their system worked.

SELinux, they explained, goes way beyond the firewalls and file permissions that now guard *nix boxes. These kinds of everyday security measures fall under the rubric of discretionary access control (DAC). The problem with DAC is that such protocols determine security levels only by the identity of the users, not by the actions they are trying to execute. Under this general level of protection, a cracker can "own" a system only by sussing out a sysadmin's password, or a Trojan horse, but once inside the system, can do far more damage as the OS has implicitly trusted the executable to do the right thing.

A well-tuned MAC-enhanced system eliminates these possibilities. "The mandatory access controls can confine the actions of any process so that the potential damage that can be done by exploiting a flaw in an application can be strictly limited," Smalley writes on the SE mailing list. SE protects raw data and the kernel against any potential damage that can be caused through an exploitation of a flaw in a process that requires privileges. It also keeps ordinary user processes from interfering with system processes or administrator processes. MAC checks permissions of every process, file, and socket being used against a matrix of allowable actions. (For more detail, see Larry Loeb's analysis on IBM's DeveloperWorks site, part one and part two. Or, if you really have some time to kill, read NSA's own backgrounders on the Linux implementation and the architecture itself.

Smalley gave an example of how SE would toughen up a Web server: While now it may be possible to drop some malicious code through a CGI interface, with some sort of MAC protection CGI commands could only access a small subset of previously-defined actions, actions the sysadmin had already set as permissible. A CGI command couldn't execute at the level of the server itself, so a process couldn't fork off and cause damage.

SELinux stems from NSA studies first done back in 1993 on developing a secure MAC architecture -- eventually the work led to an enhanced security architecture, called Flask, the specifications of which were released in 1999. NSA started applying Flask to Linux in the summer of 1999, and the first version of SELinux was released last December. The basic architecture itself is platform independent, Loscocco explains, and, in fact, the folks from TrustedBSD have already contacted NSA about possible use to leverage some of this work for their own MAC controls, which aren't as flexible.

SELinux is not a separate software program, nor is it even a separate Linux distro. Rather, the NSA team hopes to have it built into the kernel itself. The security levels for users, programs, and processes are set by the system administrator through a kernel subsystem called a "security server," which acts as an interface to check all policy decisions. It provides control over execute permissions, file control permissions, socket controls, and other process management services like fork, getsid and sched. The policies are customizable: They can be set at low-level fine-grain levels or across higher system-wide levels. Even previously omniscient root accounts aren't granted de-facto rights to all operations.

Of course, with all SELinux's tune-ability, there is also the distinct possibility that a less-than-purely thought-out policy can wreak havoc. As Loscocco points out, "We give the sysadmin enough rope to hang themselves."

And, as the talk went on, the CALUGers in the group were quick to sniff out SE's other potential areas of grief for Linux developers and sysadmins, as Linux users are wont to do. For programmers, error messages would have to be a lot more thoroughly thought out under SELinux. How to handle a child process not returning data because the user didn't have appropriate permission? Also, as of now, only the ext2fs filesystem is recognized in SELInux. The policies on files in other filesystems, like Fat32 or XFS, still have to be set at a high level -- reducing flexibility. A third perceived shortcoming is that while the Flask architecture is itself platform independent, the Linux implementation is Intel x86 platform-specific -- although Loscocco pointed out that the code could easily be ported to other chips as well.

Then there is the old bugaboo of lag. As could be expected with any system that checks each and every process, there's bound to be some overhead, which may slow performance. When asked, Loscocco admitted that users would feel it in some cases. On most executions, he said. the overhead would be so small as to be almost unnoticeable -- on the order of 1 to 2 percent -- thanks to a vector access cache. But on smaller commands, it would be more noticeable. And one area where it really would be felt would be in networking, where Smalley admitted that the overhead could be as high as 10 percent.

While most of the meeting dealt with the technical implications of SELinux, eventually the talk drifted towards why the NSA was taking such an interest in Linux in the first place.

And with good reason. It's not often that the secrecy-minded NSA goes out on speaking engagements, much less offers help to renegade software movements. Loeb wrote that NSA introducing SELinux to the world is the "equivalent of the Pope coming down off the balcony in Rome, working the crowd with a few loaves of bread and some fishes, and then inviting everyone to come over to his place to watch the soccer game and have a few beers."

Of course, the conspiracy-minded among us could find motives quite easily. And inevitably, someone in the back row asked the question that, however embarrassing it may have been to ask, nonetheless had to be asked: Is there some sort of back door written into SELinux? Meaning, did the NSA plant secret access points that it can use to gain entry into people's computers?

It is a good question. After all, just last week it was reported that Germany is banning Microsoft software from its sensitive posts, fearing that the NSA had already planted back doors in that company's products, although German officials later denied the reports. The concern was also voiced last September, when an ex-NSA analyst accused the agency of persuading some commercial software companies to add booby-hatches to their products. And a few years ago, when the government was hammering out a standard for creating electronic signatures, the NSA okayed a proposed digital signature but didn't identify a serious flaw that would allow a sophisticated party -- such as NSA -- to install a trapdoor (NSA denies this was the case). And let's not forget the supposed "NSAkey" that got Microsoft- and NSA-haters all in an indignant huff.

Loscocco's answer was simple -- and he was adamant that NSA's goal is not to "pollute Linux." Back doors can't be done with Open Source software like Linux, he said, at least not without being discovered. After all, anyone can examine the code to see what it does. Sooner or later, some inquisitive programmer would find it.

But would they? After all, we're talking about code written by America's greatest employer of mathematicians, and one of the world's biggest users of computers. If anyone could plant secret code in Open Source, it would be NSA. No slouches of the deep calculations are they.

Loeb, who has examined the code in detail, would agree that there is no sneaky business going on, although he wouldn't go as far as to verify that there were no back doors. "I have seen nothing in the code to indicate any computational effort to swipe data, but to really answer that, the code would have to be analyzed for dependencies that are not obvious," Loeb emails. "The thing is, the released version is sort of useless as is. It's a framework, much like a Linux distribution. You have to set the permissions and stuff. Doing that customization seems to cut off any way that 'They' could count on to transmit data out of the shell.

"But that's just my opinion. I can't truly prove it mathematically."

Actually, SELinux has more to do with NSA's other mission, the one fewer people know about. While its chief duty is monitoring foreign communications for political and economic items of interest, NSA has a second task of building communications systems that can't be cracked, listened in on, or otherwise compromised. As one CALUG member noted after the meeting, "The wars between nations today are economic ones." Especially since the Cold War, operatives cut loose from foreign spy agencies are now engaged in all manner of espionage for foreign companies and governments. So it is in the United States' best interest, the argument goes, that the government build crack-proof systems for U.S. corporations.

And who better to do that than NSA itself, which knows a thing or two about compromising systems? The agency's Web site has a whole slew of security-related technologies ready for some enterprising companies to take out into the marketplace -- from disk sanitization to a wafer-coating technique that prevents reverse engineering of chips. And this is nothing new. Back in the '70s, when IBM was working on what would soon become the government Data Encryption Standard (DES), NSA brainboxes quietly stepped in to assist Big Blue in refining its design. Turns out they'd been secretly working on something similar for years.

But SELinux is the NSA's first outreach effort in Open Source.

SElinux seems to be the result of standard-issue technology transfer -- the U.S. government's ongoing attempt to get its own research into the marketplace to advance the frontiers of technology and, not incidentally, bring down the costs of the government systems those technologies are employed in. Loscocco pointed out that night how the NSA, like a lot of government agencies, is interested in using Linux itself to cut costs. Many of the Department of Defense's computers are required to have MAC implementations, and SELinux addresses that need.

"They need a secure OS internally," emails Loeb. "They want something they can put on cheap boxes that will still give them the security they need and currently implement on lots of disparate hardware. I think [SELinux] is really an admission that the world has changed. They need MAC, but only if it works can they use it on PCs"

In fact, Loscocco and Smalley told the CALUG group that it really isn't NSA's chef goal to have SELinux itself implemented in the kernel -- just that particular MAC security server architecture. After all, Loscocco is pretty confident that a MAC of some sort will be implemented in the future. It would seem that development is heading in that direction. In fact, there are about five other MAC designs competing for Torvalds' attention. One is Linux Intrusion Detection System (LIDS). Kernel contributor Malcolm Beattie has an alpha MAC release as well.

Both Loscocco and Smalley seemed earnest about what they were doing, and in doing so, they are testing the Open Source philosophy. After all, one of the tenets of Open Source, at least according to the Open Source Initiative is that "in order to get the maximum benefit from the process, the maximum diversity of persons and groups should be equally eligible to contribute to open sources. Therefore we forbid any open-source license from locking anybody out of the process." And would that include America's premier spy agency?

Later this month, NSA will present the Linux-gatekeepers with a tough choice. In the long run, NSA's contributions could strengthen Linux immeasurably, but will vocal Linux adherents really want a kernel with "NSA inside"?

And if not, will it just be from blind prejudice?

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