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Michael Janke has written an interesting article about data flows in networks , he describes how data from the Internet should be considered to have low integrity (he refers to it as “untrusted”) and that as you get closer to the more important parts of the system it needs to be of higher integrity.
It seems to me that his ideas are very similar in concept to the Biba Integrity Model . The Biba model is based around the idea that a process can only write data to a resource that is of equal or lower integrity and only read data from a resource that is of equal or higher integrity, this is often summarised as “no read-down and no write-up“. In a full implementation of Biba the OS would label all data (including network data) as to it’s integrity level and prevent any communication that violates the model (except of course for certain privileged programs – for example the file or database that stores user passwords must have high integrity but any user can run the program to change their password). A full Biba implementation would not work for a typical Internet service, but considering some of the concepts of Biba while designing an Internet service should lead to a much better design (as demonstrated in Michael’s post).
While considering the application of Biba to network design it makes sense to also consider consider the Bell LaPadula model (BLP) . In computer systems designed for military use a combination of Biba and BLP is not uncommon, while a strict combination of those technologies would be an almost insurmountable obstacle to development of Internet services I think it’s worth considering the concepts.
BLP is a system that is primarily designed around the goal of protecting data confidentiality. Every process (subject) has a sensitivity label (often called a “clearance”) which is comprised of a sensitivity level and a set of categories and every resource that a process might access (object) also has a sensitivity label (often called a “classification”). If the clearance of the subject dominates the classification of the object (IE the level is equal or greater and the set of categories is a super-set) then read access is permitted, if the clearance of the subject is dominated by the classification of the object then write access is permitted, and the clearance and classification have to be equal for read/write access to be permitted. This is often summarised as “no write-down and no read-up“.
SGI has published a lot of documentation for their Trusted Irix (TRIX) product on the net, the section about mandatory access control covers Biba and BBLP . I recommend that most people who read my blog not read the description of how Biba and BLP works, it will just give you nightmares.
The complexity of either Biba or BLP (including categories) is probably too great for consideration when designing network services which have much lower confidentiality requirements (even the loss of a few million credit card numbers is trivial compared to some of the potential results of leaks of confidential military data). But a simpler case of BLP with only levels is worth considering. You might have credit card numbers stored in a database classified as “Top Secret” and not allow less privileged processes to read from it. The data about customers addresses and phone numbers might be classified as “Secret” and all the other data might merely be “Classified”.
One way of using the concepts of Biba and BLP in the design of a complex system would be to label every process and data store in the system according to it’s integrity and classification/clearance. Then for the situations where data flows to processes with lower clearance the code could be well designed and audited to ensure that it does not leak data. For situations where data of low integrity (EG data from a web browser) is received by a process of high integrity (EG the login screen) the code would have to be designed and audited to ensure that it correctly parsed the data and didn’t allow SQL injection or other potential attacks.
I expect that many people who have experience with Biba and BLP will be rolling their eyes while reading this. The situation that we are dealing with in regard to PHP and SQL attacks over the Internet is quite different to the environments where proper implementations of Biba and BLP are deployed. We need to do what we can to try and improve things, and I think that the best way of improving things in terms of web application security would involve thinking about clearance and integrity as separate issues in the design phase.
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