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Rant on Capability Security [LONG]
I was asked in private mail:
>I'd like the longer rant. I'm particularly interested in getting
>practical examples of where distributed capabilities can be used
>to solve enterprise/IS security problems. I'd like to see an
>alternative to strong authentication and NT ACLs.
What we intuitively call security is really made up of three things:
keeping objects secret, protecting objects from modification, and
preventing the miss-use of objects. We can really only algorithmically
control two of these things.
We can keep an object secret by withholding the authority to access the
object, or confining the computations which use the object. ACLs are a way
of withholding access.
We can protect objects from modification by withholding the authority to
modify them. ACLs also are a way of withholding modification authority.
We can't prevent something which has legitimate access to an object from
miss-using that access. A simple example is a program which has the
authority to erase files from a directory. There is no way we can prevent
it from erasing a specific file in that directory. We must trust it not to
erase that file whenever we run it.
We have already been considering the actors in a system informally. More
formally, the actors are either people or programs. While people can not
directly act on the computational objects in a system, there is usually a
program e.g. the Unix shell, which will help people do anything they have
the authority to do. The logon process needs to identify people so it will
give their shell the proper authority. Once logon has authenticated the
user, we can consider that the only actors are programs.
A critical issue is, what are the loyalties of the actors? People's
loyalties are hard to determine, and most computer fraud is due to people
failures rather than to technical security breaches. IMHO the best
technical solution to people problems is tamper resistant audit trails.
The loyalty of the program is easier to determine. It is most closely
aligned with the people who wrote it, not the person running it. (However,
bugs make this alignment only approximate.) The fact the programs are
loyal to their authors is what allows hostile viruses and Trojan horses to
exist. The fact of bugs allows the never ending list of system
penetrations based on overrunning some storage buffer.
Systems like NT ACLs fail because they have the implicit assumption that
the loyalty of the program is to the person running it, so they consider
the security problem solved when they can control people's access to
objects. In these systems, when a user executes a program, a program
instance is created which inherits all the authority of the user. If it is
loyal to the user, there is no problem. However when its loyalty to its
author causes it to abuse the authority of its user, there is a security
We have several tools to reduce security exposures in our systems. We can
use the principle of least privilege to sharply limit the authority
programs have when they run. For example, we can run the program with
erase authority described above with only the authority to erase specific
files. By only giving it access to the computational objects it needs to
do its job, we can prevent it from accessing or modifying other objects in
We can also control where programs can transfer the data they can access by
controlling their communication channels. This technique is called
confinement. (See Butler Lampson's paper, "A Note on the Confinement
Problem", Communications of the ACM, V 16, N 10, October, 1973.
<http://www.cis.upenn.edu/~KeyKOS/Confinement.html> for a discussion of its
limitations.) Systems which allow programs to write files in essentially
any directory can't confine those programs.
It should be noted that in a free society, people can not be confined as a
way of keeping them from communicating the secrets they know. It is not
clear you can even confine people, short of killing them, in the most
repressive of societies. To keep secrets, you must trust the people who
know the secret.
The last tool we have is trust. However, in general we want to follow the
dictum of, "Trust, but verify." For people we use techniques such as
non-disclosure agreements, background checks, and audit trails. For
programs we perform security audits. Since auditing every program we run
is unfeasible, so we really want to limit the number of programs we need to
Here are the techniques we have related to the actor and the property we
are concerned with:
Secrecy Modification Miss-use
programs trust/ no-access/ trust
people trust/ no-access trust
An additional set of problems occur when programs have authority which
their users do not have. The common technique for protecting the integrity
of databases produces this situation. Users have authority to invoke
certain database transactions which ensure the rules are followed. The
transactions in turn have the authority to read and write the database.
The kludges systems implement to support this requirement are responsible
for what Norm Hardy calls the Confused Deputy Problem
<http://www.cis.upenn.edu/~KeyKOS/ConfusedDeputy.html>. The program
instance has the authority, but it doesn't know whether it is from the user
or associated with the program. As a result, the user can persuade the
program to miss-use its authority.
A solution to the problem of programs running with all the user's authority
is to create a new security domain for the program instance, and give it
only the authority it needs to do its job. Consider how we would do this
in an ACL system. Assume Alice is executing program Foo. We need to
create a new security domain, lets call it Alice'sFooInstance. We need to
add Alice'sFooInstance to the ACLs for all the resources that the program
needs during its execution. This solution lets us enforce the principle of
least privilege, but still leaves us exposed to the Confused Deputy Problem.
To also solve the Confused Deputy Problem, we need to create three security
domains. We create Alice'sInstance and add it to the ACLs of objects Alice
is authorizing, after checking that Alice is on those ACLs. We create
Foo'sInstance and add it to the ACLs of the objects Foo is authorizing,
after checking that Foo is on those ACLs. We then create
Alice'sFooInstance and put it on the ACL for Alice'sInstance and
Foo'sInstance. Since it must go indirectly thru either Alice'sInstance or
Foo'sInstance to access objects, it can ensure that it is invoking the
correct authority for each access.
These solutions produce many security domains and have significant
performance problems, even on one computer. When we contemplate them in a
distributed, mutually suspicious system like the Internet, the performance
problems get worse, and we introduce distributed authority issues inherent
in changing ACLs. Capabilities allow us to solve both these problems.
One view of capabilities is as distributed ACLs. Instead of keeping the
ACL next to the object it is protecting, we can distribute the entries, and
authenticate them by a digital signature. A capability can be implemented
as an object pointer signed by the authority which grants access to that
object. Since the Internet is inherently insecure, this implementation
would fall to the first packet sniffer. In SPKI, we protect our
capabilities (called certs) by including information which can authenticate
the holder. To allow the holder to create new, restricted security
domains, we allow delegation.
With capabilities, we create a new security domain, and give it the
capabilities Alice is authorizing by getting them from Alice. We also give
the capabilities Foo is authorizing by getting them from Foo. Since the
capabilities combine naming with authorization we avoid the Confused Deputy
Problem. Since the capabilities include the authority, we don't have to
In a distributed SPKI system, Alice would generate delegation certs to
whatever machine/security domain was going to run Foo using that machine's
public key. If Foo was to run on a "random" machine in the network, the
provider of the Foo program would also generate delegation certs for the
necessary authority for that machine. Then that machine would have the
authority to do its job.
Capability systems can also provide confinement, but the details are beyond
the scope of this rant. For further information, see the KeyKOS Page
<http://www.cis.upenn.edu/~KeyKOS/> for information on a capability system
which did provide confinement.
While ACL systems like NT may be "the state of the art", we can do