Linux, politics, and other interesting things
A large part of the disagreement about the way to manage the policy seems to be based on who will be the primary “owner” of the policy on the machine. This isn’t a problem that only applies to SE Linux, the same issue applies for various types of configuration files and scripts throughout the process of distribution development. Having a range of modules which can be considered configuration data that come from a single source seems to make SE Linux policy unique among other packages. The reasons for packaging all Apache modules in the main package seem a lot clearer.
One idea that keeps cropping up is that as the policy is modular it should be included in daemon packages and the person maintaining the distribution package of the policy should maintain it. The reason for this request seems to usually be based on the idea that the person who packages a daemon for a distribution knows more about how it works than anyone else, I believe that this is false in most cases. When I started working on SE Linux I had a reasonable amount of experience in maintaining Debian packages of daemons and server processes, but I had to learn a lot about how things REALLY work to be able to write good policy. Also if we were to have policy modules included in the daemon packages, then those packages would need to be updated whenever there were serious changes to the SE Linux policy. For example Debian/Unstable flip-flopped on MCS support recently, changing the policy packages to re-enable MCS was enough pain, getting 50 daemon packages updated would have been unreasonably painful. Then of course there is the case where two daemons need to communicate, if the interface which is provided with one policy module has to be updated before another module can be updated and they are in separate packages then synchronised updates to two separate packages might be required for a single change to the upstream policy. I believe that the idea of having policy modules owned by the maintainers of the various daemon packages is not viable. I also believe that most people who package daemons would violently oppose the idea of having to package SE Linux policy if they realised what would be required of them.
Caleb Case seems to believe that ownership of policy can either be based on the distribution developer or the local sys-admin with apparently little middle-ground . In the section titled “The Evils of Single Policy Packages” he suggests that if an application is upgraded for a security fix, and that upgrade requires a new policy, then it requires a new policy for the entire system if all the policy is in the same package. However the way things currently work is that upgrading a Debian SE Linux policy package does not install any of the new modules. They are stored under /usr/share/selinux/default but the active modules are under /etc/selinux/default/modules/active. An example of just such an upgrade is the Debian Security Advisory DSA-1617-1 for the SE Linux policy for Etch to address the recent BIND issue . In summary the new version of BIND didn’t work well with the SE Linux policy, so an update was released to fix it. When the updated SE Linux policy package is installed it will upgrade the bind.pp module if the previous version of the package was known to have the version of bind.pp that didn’t allow named to bind() to most UDP ports – the other policy modules are not touched. I think that this is great evidence to show that the way things currently work in Debian work well. For the hypothetical case where a user had made local modifications to the bind.pp policy module, they could simply put the policy package on hold – I think it’s safe to assume that anyone who cares about security will read the changelogs for all updates to released versions of Debian, so they would realise the need to do this.
Part of Caleb’s argument rests on the supposed need for end users to modify policy packages (IE to build their own packages from modified source). I run many SE Linux machines, and since the release of the “modular” policy (which first appeared in Fedora Core 5, Debian/Etch, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5) I have never needed to make such a modification. I modify policy regularly for the benefit of Debian users and have a number of test machines to try it out. But for the machines where I am a sysadmin I just create a local module that permits the access that is needed. The only reason why someone would need to modify an existing module is to remove privileges or to change automatic domain transition rules. Changing automatic domain transitions is a serious change to the policy which is not something that a typical user would want to do – if they were to do such things then they would probably grab the policy source and rebuild all the policy packages. Removing privileges is not something that a typical sysadmin desires, the reference policy is reasonably strict and users generally don’t look for ways to tighten up the policy. In almost all cases it seems best to consider that the policy modules which are shipped by the distribution are owned by the distribution not the sysadmin. The sysadmin will decide which policy modules to load, what roles and levels to assign to users with the semanage tool, and what local additions to add to the policy. For the CentOS systems I run I use the Red Hat policy, I don’t believe that there is a benefit for me to change the policy that Red Hat ships, and I think that for people who have less knowledge about SE Linux policy than me there are more reasons not to change such policy and less reasons to do so.
Finally Caleb provides a suggestion for managing policy modules by having sym-links to the modules that you desire. Of course there is nothing preventing the existence of a postfix.pp file on the system provided by a package while there is a local postfix.pp file which is the target of the sym-link (so the sym-link idea does not support the idea of having multiple policy packages). With the way that policy modules can be loaded from any location, the only need for sym-links is if you want to have an automatic upgrade script that can be overridden for some modules. I have no objection to adding such a feature to the Debian policy packages if someone sends me a patch.
Caleb also failed to discuss how policy would be initially loaded if packaged on a per-module basis. If for example I had a package selinux-policy-default-postfix which contains the file postfix.pp, how would this package get installed? I am not aware of the Debian package dependencies (or those of any other distribution) being about to represent that the postfix package depends on selinux-policy-default-postfix if and only if the selinux-policy-default package is installed. Please note that I am not suggesting that we add support for such things, a package management system that can solve Sudoku based on package dependency rules is not something that I think would be useful or worth having. As I noted in my previous post about how to package SE Linux policy for distributions  the current Debian policy packages have code in the postinst (which I believe originated with Erich Schubert) to load policy modules that match the Debian packages on the system. This means that initially setting up the policy merely requires installing the selinux-policy-default package and rebooting. I am inclined to reject any proposed change which makes the initial install of of the policy more difficult than this.
After Debian/Lenny is released I plan to make some changes to the policy. One thing that I want to do is to have a Debconf option to allow users to choose to automatically upgrade their running policy whenever they upgrade the Debian policy package, this would probably only apply to changes within one release (IE it wouldn’t cause an automatic upgrade from Lenny+1 policy to Lenny+2). Another thing I would like to do is to have the policy modules which are currently copied to /etc/selinux/default/modules/active instead be hard linked when the source is a system directory. That would save about 12M of disk space on some of my systems.
I’ve taken the unusual step of writing two blog posts in response to Caleb’s post not because I want to criticise him (he has done a lot of good work), but because he is important in the SE Linux community and his post deserves the two hours I have spent writing responses to it. While writing these posts I have noticed a number of issues that can be improved, I invite suggestions from Caleb and others on how to make such improvements.
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