Computer security

Computer security

This article describes how security can be achieved through design and engineering. See the computer insecurity article for an alternative approach that describes computer security exploits and defenses.

The term Computer Security can refer to a product, or a service, or a branch of technology known as information security as it applies to computers. The objective varies, and can include protection of information from theft, corruption or preservation of availability, as defined in the security policy.

Computer security imposes requirements on computers that are different from most system requirements because they often take the form of constraints on what computers are not supposed to do. This makes computer security particularly challenging because we find it hard enough just to make computer programs just do everything they are designed to do correctly. Furthermore, negative requirements are deceptively complicated to satisfy and require exhaustive testing to verify, which is impractical for most computer programs. Computer security provides a technical strategy to convert negative requirements to positive enforceable rules. For this reason, computer security is often more technical and mathematical than some computer science fields.

Typical approaches to computer security (in approximate order of strength) can include the following:

• Physically limit access to computers to only those who will not compromise security.

• Hardware mechanisms that impose rules on computer programs, thus avoiding depending the computer programs for computer security.

• Operating system mechanisms that impose rules on programs to avoid trusting computer programs.

• Programming strategies to make computer programs dependable and resist subversion.


  • 1 Secure operating systems
  • 2 Security architecture
  • 3 Security by design
    • 3.1 Early history of security by design
  • 4 Secure coding
  • 5 Terms
  • 6 Capabilities vs. ACLs
  • 7 See also
  • 8 Notes
  • 9 References
  • 10 Further reading

Secure operating systems

One use of the term computer security refers to technology to implement a secure operating system. Much of this technology is based on science developed in the 1980s and used to produce what may be some of the most impenetrable operating systems ever. Though still valid, the technology is almost inactive today, perhaps because it is complex or not widely understood. Such ultra-strong secure operating systems are based on operating system kernel technology that can guarantee that certain security policies are absolutely enforced in an operating environment. An example of such a Computer security policy is the Bell-LaPadula model. The strategy is based on a coupling of special microprocessor hardware features, often involving the memory management unit, to a special correctly implemented operating system kernel. This forms the foundation for a secure operating system which, if certain critical parts are designed and implemented correctly, can ensure the absolute impossibility of penetration by hostile elements. This capability is enabled because the configuration not only imposes a security policy, but in theory completely protects itself from corruption. Ordinary operating systems, on the other hand, lack the features that assure this maximal level of security. The design methodology to produce such secure systems is precise, deterministic and logical.

Systems designed with such methodology represent the state of the art of computer security and the capability to produce them is not widely known. In sharp contrast to most kinds of software, they meet specifications with verifiable certainty comparable to specifications for size, weight and power. Secure operating systems designed this way are used primarily to protect national security information and military secrets. These are very powerful security tools and very few secure operating systems have been certified at the highest level (Orange Book A-1) to operate over the range of "Top Secret" to "unclassified" (including Honeywell SCOMP, USAF SACDIN, NSA Blacker and Boeing MLS LAN.) The assurance of security depends not only on the soundness of the design strategy, but also on the assurance of correctness of the implementation, and therefore there are degrees of security strength defined for COMPUSEC. The Common Criteria quantifies security strength of products in terms of two components, security capability (as Protection Profile) and assurance levels (as EAL levels.) None of these ultra-high assurance secure general purpose operating systems have been produced for decades or certified under the Common Criteria.

Security architecture

Security Architecture can be defined as "The design artifacts that describe how the security controls (= security countermeasures) are positioned, and how they relate to the overall IT Architecture. These controls serve the purpose to maintain the system’s quality attributes, among them confidentiality, integrity, availability, accountability and assurance."[1]. In simpler words, a security architecture is the plan that shows where security measures need to be placed. If the plan describes a specific solution then, prior to building such a plan, one would make a risk analysis. If the plan describes a generic high level design then (reference architecture) then the plan should be based on a threat analysis.

Security by design

The technologies of computer security are based on logic. There is no universal standard notion of what secure behavior is. "Security" is a concept that is unique to each situation. Security is extraneous to the function of a computer application, rather than ancillary to it, thus security necessarily imposes restrictions on the application's behavior.

There are several approaches to security in computing, sometimes a combination of approaches is valid:

  1. Trust all the software to abide by a security policy but the software is not trustworthy (this is computer insecurity).
  2. Trust all the software to abide by a security policy and the software is validated as trustworthy (by tedious branch and path analysis for example).
  3. Trust no software but enforce a security policy with mechanisms that are not trustworthy (again this is computer insecurity).
  4. Trust no software but enforce a security policy with trustworthy mechanisms.

Many systems have unintentionally result in the first possibility. Approaches one and three lead to failure. Since approach two is expensive and non-deterministic, its use is very limited. Because approach number four is often based on hardware mechanisms and avoid abstractions and a multiplicity of degrees of freedom, it is more practical. Combinations of approaches two and four are often used in a layered architecture with thin layers of two and thick layers of four.

There are myriad strategies and techniques used to design security systems. There are few, if any, effective strategies to enhance security after design.

One technique enforces the principle of least privilege to great extent, where an entity has only the privileges that are needed for its function. That way even if an attacker gains access to one part of the system, fine-grained security ensures that it is just as difficult for them to access the rest.

Furthermore, by breaking the system up into smaller components, the complexity of individual components is reduced, opening up the possibility of using techniques such as automated theorem proving to prove the correctness of crucial software subsystems. This enables a closed form solution to security that works well when only a single well-characterized property can be isolated as critical, and that property is also assessable to math. Not surprisingly, it is impractical for generalized correctness, which probably cannot even be defined, much less proven. Where formal correctness proofs are not possible, rigorous use of code review and unit testing represent a best-effort approach to make modules secure.

The design should use "defense in depth", where more than one subsystem needs to be violated to compromise the integrity of the system and the information it holds. Defense in depth works when the breaching of one security measure does not provide a platform to facilitate subverting another. Also, the cascading principle acknowledges that several low hurdles does not make a high hurdle. So cascading several weak mechanisms does not provide the safety of a single stronger mechanism.

Subsystems should default to secure settings, and wherever possible should be designed to "fail secure" rather than "fail insecure" (see fail safe for the equivalent in safety engineering). Ideally, a secure system should require a deliberate, conscious, knowledgeable and free decision on the part of legitimate authorities in order to make it insecure.

In addition, security should not be an all or nothing issue. The designers and operators of systems should assume that security breaches are inevitable. Full audit trails should be kept of system activity, so that when a security breach occurs, the mechanism and extent of the breach can be determined. Storing audit trails remotely, where they can only be appended to, can keep intruders from covering their tracks. Finally, full disclosure helps to ensure that when bugs are found the "window of vulnerability" is kept as short as possible.

Early history of security by design

The early Multics operating system was notable for its early emphasis on computer security by design, and Multics was possibly the very first operating system to be designed as a secure system from the ground up. In spite of this, Multics' security was broken, not once, but repeatedly. The strategy was known as 'penetrate and test' and has become widely known as a non-terminating process that fails to produce computer security. This led to further work on computer security that prefigured modern security engineering techniques producing closed form processes that terminate.

Secure coding

If the operating environment is not based on a secure operating system capable of maintaining a domain for its own execution, and capable of protecting application code from malicious subversion, and capable of protecting the system from subverted code, then high degrees of security are understandably not possible. While such secure operating systems are possible and have been implemented, most commercial systems fall in a 'low security' category because they rely on features not supported by secure operating systems (like portability, et al.). In low security operating environments, applications must be relied on to participate in their own protection. There are 'best effort' secure coding practices that can be followed to make an application more resistant to malicious subversion.

In commercial environments, the majority of software subversion vulnerabilities result from a few known kinds of coding defects. Common software defects include buffer overflows, format string vulnerabilities, integer overflow, and code/command injection.

Some common languages such as C and C++ are vulnerable to all of these defects (see Seacord, "Secure Coding in C and C++"). Other languages, such as Java, are more resistant to some of these defects, but are still prone to code/command injection and other software defects which facilitate subversion.

Recently another bad coding practise has come under scrutiny; dangling pointers. The first known exploit for this particular problem was presented in July 2007. Before this publication the problem was known but considered to be academic and not practically exploitable. [2]

In summary, 'secure coding' can provide significant payback in low security operating environments, and therefore worth the effort. Still there is no known way to provide a reliable degree of subversion resistance with any degree or combination of 'secure coding.'


The following terms used in engineering secure systems are explained below.

  • Firewall Firewalls can either be hardware devices or software programs. They provide some protection from online intrusion, but since they allow some applications (e.g. web browsers) to connect to the Internet, they don't protect against some unpatched vulnerabilities in these applications (e.g. lists of known unpatched holes from Secunia and SecurityFocus).
  • Automated theorem proving and other verification tools can enable critical algorithms and code used in secure systems to be mathematically proven to meet their specifications.
  • Thus simple microkernels can be written so that we can be sure they don't contain any bugs: eg EROS and Coyotos.

A bigger OS, capable of providing a standard API like POSIX, can be built on a secure microkernel using small API servers running as normal programs. If one of these API servers has a bug, the kernel and the other servers are not affected: e.g. Hurd or Minix 3.

  • Cryptographic techniques can be used to defend data in transit between systems, reducing the probability that data exchanged between systems can be intercepted or modified.
  • Strong authentication techniques can be used to ensure that communication end-points are who they say they are.

Secure cryptoprocessors can be used to leverage physical security techniques into protecting the security of the computer system.

  • Chain of trust techniques can be used to attempt to ensure that all software loaded has been certified as authentic by the system's designers.
  • Mandatory access control can be used to ensure that privileged access is withdrawn when privileges are revoked. For example, deleting a user account should also stop any processes that are running with that user's privileges.
  • Capability and access control list techniques can be used to ensure privilege separation and mandatory access control. The next sections discuss their use.

Some of the following items may belong to the computer insecurity article:

  • Do not run an application with known security flaws. Either leave it turned off until it can be patched or otherwise fixed, or delete it and replace it with some other application. Publicly known flaws are the main entry used by worms to automatically break into a system and then spread to other systems connected to it. The security website Secunia provides a search tool for unpatched known flaws in popular products.
Cryptographic techniques involve transforming information, scrambling it so it becomes unreadable during transmission. The intended recipient can unscramble the message, but eavesdroppers cannot.
Cryptographic techniques involve transforming information, scrambling it so it becomes unreadable during transmission. The intended recipient can unscramble the message, but eavesdroppers cannot.
  • Backups are a way of securing information; they are another copy of all the important computer files kept in another location. These files are kept on hard disks, CD-Rs, CD-RWs, and tapes. Suggested locations for backups are a fireproof, waterproof, and heat proof safe, or in a separate, offsite location than that in which the original files are contained. Some individuals and companies also keep their backups in safe deposit boxes inside bank vaults. There is also a fourth option, which involves using one of the file hosting services that backs up files over the Internet for both business and individuals.
    • Backups are also important for reasons other than security. Natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, or tornadoes, may strike the building where the computer is located. The building can be on fire, or an explosion may occur. There needs to be a recent backup at an alternate secure location, in case of such kind of disaster. The backup needs to be moved between the geographic sites in a secure manner, so as to prevent it from being stolen.
  • Anti-virus software consists of computer programs that attempt to identify, thwart and eliminate computer viruses and other malicious software (malware).
  • Firewalls are systems which help protect computers and computer networks from attack and subsequent intrusion by restricting the network traffic which can pass through them, based on a set of system administrator defined rules.
  • Access authorization restricts access to a computer to group of users through the use of authentication systems. These systems can protect either the whole computer - such as through an interactive logon screen - or individual services, such as an FTP server. There are many methods for identifying and authenticating users, such as passwords, identification cards, and, more recently, smart cards and biometric systems.
  • Encryption is used to protect the message from the eyes of others. It can be done in several ways by switching the characters around, replacing characters with others, and even removing characters from the message. These have to be used in combination to make the encryption secure enough, that is to say, sufficiently difficult to crack. Public key encryption is a refined and practical way of doing encryption. It allows for example anyone to write a message for a list of recipients, and only those recipients will be able to read that message.
  • Intrusion-detection systems can scan a network for people that are on the network but who should not be there or are doing things that they should not be doing, for example trying a lot of passwords to gain access to the network.
  • Pinging The ping application can be used by potential hackers to find if an IP address is reachable. If a hacker finds a computer they can try a port scan to detect and attack services on that computer.
  • Social engineering awareness - Keeping employees aware of the dangers of social engineering and/or having a policy in place to prevent social engineering can reduce successful breaches of the network and servers.
  • Honey pots are computers that are either intentionally or unintentionally left vulnerable to attack by hackers. They can be used to catch hackers or fix vulnerabilities.

Capabilities vs. ACLs

Within computer systems, the two fundamental means of enforcing privilege separation are access control lists (ACLs) and capabilities. The semantics of ACLs have been proven to be insecure in many situations (e.g., Confused deputy problem). It has also been shown that ACL's promise of giving access to an object to only one person can never be guaranteed in practice. Both of these problems are resolved by capabilities. This does not mean practical flaws exist in all ACL-based systems — only that the designers of certain utilities must take responsibility to ensure that they do not introduce flaws.

Unfortunately, for various historical reasons, capabilities have been mostly restricted to research operating systems and commercial OSs still use ACLs. Capabilities can, however, also be implemented at the language level, leading to a style of programming that is essentially a refinement of standard object-oriented design. An open source project in the area is the E language.

First the Plessey System 250 and then Cambridge CAP computer demonstrated the use of capabilities, both in hardware and software, in the 1970s, so this technology is hardly new. A reason for the lack of adoption of capabilities may be that ACLs appeared to offer a 'quick fix' for security without pervasive redesign of the operating system and hardware.

The most secure computers are those not connected to the Internet and shielded from any interference. In the real world, the most security comes from operating systems where security is not an add-on, such as OS/400 from IBM. This almost never shows up in lists of vulnerabilities for good reason. Years may elapse between one problem needing remediation and the next.

A good example of a secure system is EROS. But see also the article on secure operating systems. TrustedBSD is an example of an open source project with a goal, among other things, of building capability functionality into the FreeBSD operating system. Much of the work is already done.

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