Archive for the ‘MLS (Multilevel Security)’ Category

Elemental: Leveraging Virtualization Technology For More Resilient & Survivable Systems

June 21st, 2012 Comments off

Yesterday saw the successful launch of Bromium at Gigamon’s Structure conference in San Francisco.

I was privileged to spend some stage time with Stacey Higginbotham and Simon Crosby (co-founder, CTO, mentor and good friend) on stage after Simon’s big reveal of Bromium‘s operating model and technology approach.

While product specifics weren’t disclosed, we spent some time chatting about Bromium’s approach to solving a particularly tough set of security challenges with a focus on realistic outcomes given the advanced adversaries and attack methodologies in use today.

At the heart of our discussion* was the notion that in many cases one cannot detect let alone prevent specific types of attacks and this requires a new way of containing the impact of exploiting vulnerabilities (known or otherwise) that are as much targeting the human factor as they are weaknesses in underlying operating systems and application technologies.

I think Kurt Marko did a good job summarizing Bromium in his article here, so if you’re interested in learning more check it out. I can tell you that as a technology advisor to Bromium and someone who is using the technology preview, it lives up to the hype and gives me hope that we’ll see even more novel approaches of usable security leveraging technology like this.  More will be revealed as time goes on.

That said, with productization details purposely left vague, Bromium’s leveraged implementation of Intel’s VT technology and its “microvisor” approach brought about comments yesterday from many folks that reminded them of what they called “similar approaches” (however right/wrong they may be) to use virtualization technology and/or “sandboxing” to provide more “secure” systems.  I recall the following in passing conversation yesterday:

  • Determina (VMware acquired)
  • Green Borders (Google acquired)
  • Trusteer
  • Invincea
  • DeepSafe (Intel/McAfee)
  • Intel TXT w/MLE & hypervisors
  • Self Cleansing Intrusion Tolerance (SCIT)
  • PrivateCore (Newly launched by Oded Horovitz)
  • etc…

I don’t think Simon would argue that the underlying approach of utilizing virtualization for security (even for an “endpoint” application) is new, but the approach toward making it invisible and transparent from a user experience perspective certainly is.  Operational simplicity and not making security the user’s problem is a beautiful thing.

Here is a video of Simon and my session “Secure Everything.

What’s truly of interest to me — and based on what Simon said yesterday — the application of this approach could be just at home in a “server,” cloud or mobile application as it is on a classical desktop environment.  There are certainly dependencies (such as VT) today, but the notion that we can leverage virtualization for better resilience, survivability and assurance for more “trustworthy” systems is exciting.

I for one am very excited to see how we’re progressing from “bolt on” to more integrated approaches in our security models. This will bear fruit as we become more platform and application-centric in our approach to security, allowing us to leverage fundamentally “elemental” security components to allow for more meaningfully trustworthy computing.


* The range of topics was rather hysterical; from the Byzantine General’s problem to K/T Boundary extinction-class events to the Mexican/U.S. border fence, it was chock full of analogs 😉


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How the DOD/Intel Communities Can Help Save Virtualization from the Security Trash Heap…

September 3rd, 2007 5 comments

If you’ve been paying attention closely over the last year or so, you will have noticed louder-than-normal sucking sounds coming from the virtualization sausage machine as it grinds the various ingredients driving virtualization’s re-emergence and popularity together to form the ideal tube of tasty technology bologna. 

{I rather liked that double entendre, but if you find it too corrosive, feel free to substitute your own favorite banger marque in its stead. 😉 }

Virtualization is a hot topic; from clients to servers  applications to datastores, and networking to storage, virtualization is coming back full-circle from its MULTICS and LPAR roots and promises to change everything.  Again.

Unfortunately, one of the things virtualization isn’t changing quickly enough (for my liking) and in enough visible ways is the industry’s approach to engineering security into the virtualization product lifecycle early enough to allow us to deploy a more secure product out of the box.   

Sadly, most of the commercial virtualization offerings as well as the open source platforms have lacked much in the way of guidance as how to secure VMs beyond the common sense approach of securing non-virtualized instances, and the security industry has been slow to see any more than a few innovative solutions to the problems virtualization introduces or in some way intensifies.

You can imagine then the position that leaves customers.

I’m from the Government and I’m here to help…

However, here’s where some innovation from what some might consider an unlikely source may save this go-round from another security wreck stacked in the IT boneyard: the DoD and Intelligence communities and a high-profile partnering strategy for virtualized security.

Both the DoD and Intel agencies are driven, just like the private sector, to improve efficiency, cut costs, consolidate operationally and still maintain an ever vigilant high level of security.

An example of this dictate is the Global Information Grid (GIG.) The GIG represents:

"…a net-centric system
operating in a global context to provide processing, storage,
management, and transport of information to support all Department of
Defense (DoD), national security, and related Intelligence Community
missions and functions-strategic, operational, tactical, and
business-in war, in crisis, and in peace.

GIG capabilities
will be available from all operating locations: bases, posts, camps,
stations, facilities, mobile platforms, and deployed sites. The GIG
will interface with allied, coalition, and non-GIG systems.

One of the core components of the GIG is building the capability and capacity to securely collapse and consolidate what are today physically separate computing enclaves (computers, networks and data) based upon the classification, sensitivity and clearances of information and personnel which govern the access to data by those who try to access it.

Multi-Level Security Marketing…

This represents the notion of multilevel security or MLS.  I am going to borrow liberally from this site authored by Dr. Rick Smith to provide a quick overview, as the concepts and challenges of MLS are really critical to fully appreciate what I’m about to describe.  Oddly enough, the concept and work is also 30+ years old and you’d recognize the constructs as being those you’ll find in your CISSP test materials…You remember the Bell-LaPadula model, don’t you?

The MLS Problem

We use the term multilevel
because the defense community has classified both people and
information into different levels of trust and sensitivity. These
levels represent the well-known security classifications: Confidential,
Secret, and Top Secret. Before people are allowed to look at classified
information, they must be granted individual clearances that are based
on individual investigations to establish their trustworthiness. People
who have earned a Confidential clearance are authorized to see
Confidential documents, but they are not trusted to look at Secret or
Top Secret information any more than any member of the general public.
These levels form the simple hierarchy shown in Figure 1.
The dashed arrows in the figure illustrate the direction in which the
rules allow data to flow: from "lower" levels to "higher" levels, and
not vice versa.

Figure 1: The hierarchical security levels

When speaking about these levels, we use three different terms:

  • Clearance level
    indicates the level of trust given to a person with a security
    clearance, or a computer that processes classified information, or an
    area that has been physically secured for storing classified
    information. The level indicates the highest level of classified
    information to be stored or handled by the person, device, or location.
  • Classification level
    indicates the level of sensitivity associated with some information,
    like that in a document or a computer file. The level is supposed to
    indicate the degree of damage the country could suffer if the
    information is disclosed to an enemy.
  • Security level is a generic term for either a clearance level or a classification level.

defense community was the first and biggest customer for computing
technology, and computers were still very expensive when they became
routine fixtures in defense organizations. However, few organizations
could afford separate computers to handle information at every
different level: they had to develop procedures to share the computer
without leaking classified information to uncleared (or insufficiently
cleared) users. This was not as easy as it might sound. Even when
people "took turns" running the computer at different security levels
(a technique called periods processing), security officers had to worry
about whether Top Secret information may have been left behind in
memory or on the operating system’s hard drive.
Some sites purchased
computers to dedicate exclusively to highly classified work, despite
the cost, simply because they did not want to take the risk of leaking

systems, like the early timesharing systems, made such sharing
particularly challenging. Ideally, people with Secret clearances should
be able to work at the same time others were working on Top Secret
data, and everyone should be able to share common programs and
unclassified files. While typical operating system mechanisms could
usually protect different user programs from one another, they could
not prevent a Confidential or Secret user from tricking a Top Secret
user into releasing Top Secret information via a Trojan horse.

a user runs the word processing program, the program inherits that
user’s access permissions to the user’s own files. Thus the Trojan
horse circumvents the access permissions by performing its hidden
function when the unsuspecting user runs it. This is true whether the
function is implemented in a macro or embedded in the word processor
itself. Viruses and network worms are Trojan horses in the sense that
their replication logic is run under the context of the infected user.
Occasionally, worms and viruses may include an additional Trojan horse
mechanism that collects secret files from their victims. If the victim
of a Trojan horse is someone with access to Top Secret information on a
system with lesser-cleared users, then there’s nothing on a
conventional system to prevent leakage of the Top Secret information.
Multiuser systems clearly need a special mechanism to protect
multilevel data from leakage.

Think about the challenges of supporting modern-day multiuser Windows Operating Systems (virtualized or not,) together onto a single compute platform while also consolidating multiple networks of various classifications (including the Internet) into a single network transport while providing ZERO tolerance for breach.

What’s also different here from the compartmentalization requirements of "basic" virtualization is that the segmentation and isolation is
critically driven by the classification and sensitivity of the data itself and the clearance of those trying to access it.   

To wit:

VMware and General Dynamics are partnering to provide the NSA with the next evolution of their High Assurance Platform (HAP) to solve the following problem:

… users with multiple security clearances, such as members of the U.S. Armed Forces and Homeland Security personnel, must
use separate physical workstations. The result is a so-called "air gap"
between systems to access information in each security clearance level
in order to uphold the government’s security standards.

said it will provide an extra layer of security in its virtualization
software, which lets these users run the equivalent of physically
isolated machines with separate levels of security clearance on the
same workstation.

HAP builds on the current
solution based on VMware, called NetTop, which allows simultaneous
access to classified information on the same platform in what the
agency refers to as low-risk environments.

For HAP, VMware has added a thin API of
fewer than 5,000 lines of code to its virtualization software that can
evolve over time. NetTop is more static and has to go through a lengthy
re-approval process as changes are made. "This code can evolve over
time as needs change and the accreditation process is much quicker than
just addressing what’s new." 

HAP encompasses standard Intel-based commercial hardware that
could range from notebooks and desktops to traditional workstations. Government agencies will see a minimum 60 percent
reduction in their hardware footprints and greatly reduced energy

will allow for one system to maintain up to six simultaneous virtual
machines. In addition to Windows and Linux, support for
Sun’s Solaris operating system is planned."

This could yield some readily apparent opportunities for improving the security of virtualized environments in many sensitive applications.  There are also other products on the market that offer this sort of functionality such as Googun’s Coccoon and Raytheon’s Guard offerings, but they are complex and costly and geared for non-commercial spaces.  Also, with VMware’s market-force dominance and near ubiquity, this capability has the real potential of bleeding over into the commerical space.

Today we see MLS systems featured in low risk environments, but it’s still not uncommon to see an operator tasked with using 3-4 different computers which are sometimes located in physically isolated facilities.

While this offers a level of security that has physical air gaps to help protect against unauthorized access, it is costly, complex, inefficient and does not provide for the real-time access needed to support the complex mission of today’s intelligence operatives, coalition forces or battlefield warfighters.

It may sound like a simple and mundane problem to solve, but in today’s distributed and collaborative Web2.0 world (which is one the DoD/Intel crowd are beginning to utilize) we find it more and more difficult to achieve.   Couple the information compartmentalization issue with the recent virtualization security grumblings: breaking out of VM Jails, Hypervisor
Rootkits and exploiting VM API’s for fun and profit…

This functionality has many opportunities to provide for
more secure virtualization deployments that will utilize MLS-capable
OS’s in conjunction with strong authentication, encryption, memory
firewalling and process isolation.  We’ve seen the first steps toward that already.

I look forward to what this may bring to the commercial space and the development of more secure virtualization platforms in general.  It’s building on decades of work in the information assurance space, but it’s getting closer to being cost-effective and reasonable enough for deployment.