Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Joanna Rutkowska and ITL and "Security by Isolation"

A day spent reading the research of Joanna Rutkowska and her Invisible Things Lab is a day spent improving your IQ. Ms. Rutkowska is famous for describing vulnerabilities in SMM, BIOS, and VM hypervisors.  In short, rather than attack the Operating System (although she has done some of that as well), she and her team attack the layer between the Operating System and the hardware; specifically rings -1, -2, -3 to use her terminology.  Her work has led her to some drastic conclusions about hardware and digital security.  In Joanna's universe, it is not that "game is over" but that the digital industry has never really fielded a team that could win yet. To do something about this, she and her team have developed a  customized version of Linux (Qubes-OS); partitioning off OS components into VMs to prevent the spread of malware through the access of "universal privilege" (my own term).

What do I mean by "universal privilege"? [Beware, the author's own untutored verbiage is to follow...] Computers are strange but beautiful machines.  When the first computational devices were built, we wanted to send in questions and retrieve answers. After computer scientists achieved this breakthrough, they spent the next half century attempting to generate increasing profits by increasing the speed at which answers to their questions would be returned. And they did a damn fine job at this. The increase in computational speed has to count as the single greatest technical advancement of our species by this point in history. Watch any movie about the Hubble or the Mars Rover and ask yourself: How would that happen without digital data? We have designed our computational efforts as if we were children with thirsty minds and ravenous social needs; ready to exercise our "universal privilege" to discuss/communicate/download whatever our minds and souls desire.

Security is mainly the story of protection. Secrecy is mainly the story of compartmentalization. In contrast to the development of computational speed, we've done a poor job at protection and compartmentalization of computers and their networks.  In fact, we've been so concerned about the spread of information, we've done everything possible to unleash the flow of digital data across the world.  PCs and Servers are now everywhere, in every complex product, in every country. Our computer networks are now the most tangible and real-time evidence of our civilization. Computers still retain all of the "strange and beautiful" architecture designed upon the premise that we want very little between our computers and fast answers to our questions.  We are by nature social creatures with unbounded curiosity and potentially unbounded need for "end to end" trust. Unfortunately, the reality of unconstrained digital response has helped created powerful  offensive weaponry in the untrustworthy world we live in.

So now back to universal privilege and Joanna Rutkowska and her team at Invisible Things Lab.  Eschewing (in part) the drive for secure code and secure micro-kernels, Joanna and her team attempt to do the following: 

"Qubes implements Security by Isolation approach. To do this, Qubes utilizes virtualization technology, to be able to isolate various programs from each other, and even sandbox many system-level components, like networking or storage subsystem, so that their compromise don’t affect the integrity of the rest of the system."

They achieve this "security by isolation" by compartmentalizing their OS into secure virtual machines. It is a  timely idea. As if to prove this, the NSF gave a $1.5 M dollar grant to an University of Illinois researcher nearly days after ITL's announcement of Qubes to do something similar. "Security by isolation" is an ancient concept thoroughly deployed by computer and software architecture at all levels. There are numerous examples: CPUs break down access to the processor into "Rings" (0-3).  Operating Systems break down execution in kernel and userland and then compartmentalize execution further. Some kernels just boot the most basic OS components, (Most desktop OS kernels are monolithic). Software compartmentalizes (perhaps 'componentizes') itself into functions, system calls, objects, and libraries. Some software, like Java and C#, works hard at making code live in a secure 'sandbox'. Part of the developmental reason for object oriented programming (originally) was (marginally) security-based: 'encapsulation'. Networking software has followed the trend of security by compartmentalization from switch fabric to firewalls to NAC. Hosted services, in some very real sense, are a form of "security by isolation".

In reality, we continue to invent "security by isolation" in kernels, software layers, networks, network components, firewalls, and virtual machines. As processor speed grows in an untrustworthy world, the desktop and network will always continue to need the most advanced compartmentalization to protect them from the expanding digitized world. To this end, our "universal privilege" to keep asking questions of each other will always be haunted by the necessity of  "security by isolation".

1 comment:

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