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Norman Feske avatar

Speaking of Security

The term security is overloaded to a point that makes it almost meaningless. On our website, we speak of Genode as a technology for building highly secure operating systems. But what does that even mean? Let's take a closer look at the security landscape at large, and our focus in particular.

With data breaches and cyber attacks covered by the main-stream media almost every day, IT security has gained significant public and political attention, to the effect of the mushrooming of well-funded cyber-security agencies, and growing public funding opportunities. Unfortunately, one barely sees tangible mission statements behind such initiatives. The justifications and goals behind such investments remain muddy. IT security can mean anything from using https, over researching quantum computers, over crafting exploits, over malware analysis, to - well - not mindlessly clicking on email attachments.

In contrast, when we Genode developers discuss security, we attribute a clear-cut meaning to this term. Unfortunately, this connotation does not help when speaking with people outside our bubble. Hence, we often find us in the position of explaining ourselves, even in conversations with other IT-security professionals. To lift those clouds, I tried to come up with some kind of taxonomy:

Disregarding offensive disciplines, IT security is generally concerned about protecting of the confidentiality of information, preserving the integrity of data and the IT infrastructure used for processing the data, and the availability and liveliness of IT services. In the diagram, each column corresponds to one of these objectives.

One topic from different perspectives

The three goals can be viewed from a variety of perspectives. Each row of the diagram presents a different one. There is no right or wrong perspective. Perspectives may also overlap or complement each other. Depending on the perspective of an IT-security specialist, the same goals are pursued by different means and produce different outcomes. In the following, I'll present the various perspectives from my - arguably strongly biased - point of view.

Cryptography perspective

Cryptography is math. Cryptographic algorithms are used as basic building blocks for ciphering and deciphering information, and for detecting unexpected mutation of information. It goes without saying that they are super important. Fortunately, for practical means, they are a solved problem. AES, SHA256, RSA, elliptic curves, etc. exists and are universally known to work well.

Granted, quantum computing is often touted as the sword of Damocles that ought to bring the apocalypse on today's public-key cryptography. However, the huge IT security problems of today have arguably nothing to do with the limitations of today's cryptographic algorithms. Let's face it, new math will not improve our today's dire state of IT security. The problems are not the math. They lie elsewhere.

Network-security perspective

Network security is concerned with protecting the transportation of information, hiding the information from men in the middle, authenticating communication partners, controlling the routing of communication through the network, detecting the malicious replay of communication, and preventing the silent mutation of data while transferred.

Network security is usually attained by end-to-end encryption using standard protocols like IPSec, TLS, or SSH. The patterns are well known if not to say boring, in a very positive sense. From my perspective, the most exciting recent contribution in this area is WireGuard, which overcomes the massive complexity of the standard protocols.

There are rarely network-security breaches at the protocol level. The problems usually lie in the implementation - Heartbleed comes to mind - or the mismanagement of cryptographic credentials, e.g., when a browser vendor ships custom SSL certificates.

As Genode developers, network security is certainly not our core area of competence. We are almost never talking about network security but use the established building blocks for network communication.

Operational-security perspective

Operational security remains an omnipresent topic, suggesting that computer users are at fault for IT-security problems. Well, sometimes they are. In the light of USB-killer devices, plugging a random USB stick found at the parking lot into your machine is certainly not the best idea. But blaming the user for opening an email attachment? Come on!

These mundane examples aside, operational security extends to the application of good practices, the certification of development and deployment processes, the cultivation of open-source software built from source in a reproducible manner, the use of proper locks on the doors, or the independent auditing of critical infrastructure.

I have to admit that Genode does not contribute to any of those topics.

Posthumous-security perspective

With posthumous security, I refer to specialists asking the question: "What the hell went wrong?" A disaster happened. Think of a power outage of large country region, a massive leak of compromised customer data, internet traffic taking suspicious routes, the unrecoverable loss of data. Now, a poor soul is tasked to make a clue out of this mess, estimate the reach of the problem, find interim mitigations, and eventually uncover the root cause of the trouble.

The problem comes down to understanding the situation, and tools like honeypots, malware analysis frameworks, debuggers, or utilities for data forensics help with that.

It probably comes at no big surprise that Genode is not related to the problem space of posthumous security.

Reactive-security perspective

In contrast to posthumous security, which is concerned about gaining insights, reactive security is all about detecting and responding to problems. It is not about the prevention of problems!

For example, a watchdog or lockstepped execution mechanism may continuously self-test a system, entering a fail-safe or fail-secure state once the system behaves unexpectedly. The system may become unusable that way, but it won't leak sensitive information.

The most prominent example for reactive security, however, is antivirus software. Once a virus scanner detects a virus, it's like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. It is already too late. All one can do is to react. Wiping the virus from the machine? One never knows, what traces and backdoors the malicious code has already left on the system at that point.

Computer users are made to believe that there is a cure for a virus on the computer - analogously to how we are used to curing a cold with some medicine. This is of course a fairy tale, but a super lucrative business!

Antivirus software vendors effectively ask for protection money to keep computers "healthy". Computers ought to take their medicine, right? Regularly at that, to stay immune against the latest kind of infection in circulation. A constant cash flow for the vendors. Still, even when dutifully paying up, the "protection" remains a snake-oil solution because security incidents are detected after the fact.

The bottom line is that reactive security is concerned with symptoms, not addressing root causes. There is an obvious conflict of interests of "security vendors" because solving the root cause would dry up the revenue stream for selling medicine.

Attack-mitigation perspective

Threat-mitigation at the operating-system level is the cat-and-mouse game between attackers and defenders where defenders presumably increase the costs of an attack while the attacker has to become more and more sophisticated in each round. There is no doubt that features like address-space randomization or stack-overflow protection help to hamper the outcome of potential attacks. When taking existing commodity operating-system architectures, hugely complex monolithic software stacks, and unsafe programming languages as a given, the application of state-of-the-art threat-mitigation measures seems indispensable.

That said, similar to reactive security, most state-of-the-art mitigation techniques address symptoms instead of the root cause of the problem, which is the missing separation of duties (and privileges) in today's software stacks. Mitigation techniques are crafted with the same line of thinking as Kevin in the movie "Home Alone". He knows that the burglars are able to enter his house. There are too many vulnerabilities like unsecured windows, rusty locks, or weak cellar doors. To defend the house, Kevin spills marbles on the floor, installs trip wires, and constructs all kinds of funny traps within the house.

If the house is indefensible, you better install some tripwires inside!

Resilience perspective

Resilience addresses security from a different angle. Instead of relying on trip wires and traps, or following "best practices" like putting cash at random places instead of the kitchen table, it focuses on the idea to prevent problems in the first place rather than dealing with them.

For the resilience of a building and a large software structure alike, the attack surface is critical. The smaller the attack surface, the higher the resilience of the system. With no attack surface, problems bounce off the walls. There are two principle schools of thought of how the attack surface of software can be dwarfed or even eliminated, striving for correctness and compartmentalization.

The guaranteed correctness of software can in principle be attained by applying formal verification methods, which produce a mathematical proof that the software implementation fulfills its specification. Such a proof leaves no room for bugs and thereby rules out the presence of vulnerabilities.

The second school of thought - compartmentalization - acknowledges that software is generally flawed, which is strongly supported by reality. However, unlike traditional operating systems, compartmentalization allows for the planning for the worst case. Breakage happens. But the damage remains constrained. The compartmentalization of software applies the strict separation of concerns to software functionality. Instead of entrusting one single program with a difficult task, the task is broken up into many sub tasks where each is handled by a separate program isolated from the others. The approach depends on the ability to isolate programs from one another. This can be achieved, e.g., by using multiple air-gapped devices, by encapsulating programs via language runtimes (WebAssembly or Berkeley Packet Filter come to mind), or by leveraging hardware-based memory protection. Genode focuses on compartmentalization based on latter, facilitating both virtual address spaces and virtualization.

For both directions correctness and compartmentalization, complexity is the enemy! Formal verification is applicable to relatively small programs only. For compartmentalization, high complexity of the isolation mechanism defeats the strength of the isolation.

Compartmentalization with Genode

Genode reduces the attack surface on software similarly to how bulkheads reduce seafaring risks.

Like bulkheads, Genode is designed for

  • Structural integrity,

  • Strong walls between compartments,

  • Minimizing of outside-facing doors and windows that may be misused to illegitimately enter the structure (attack surface from the outside),

  • Locked doors between compartments that cannot be circumvented without authorization, The cook cannot enter the machine room. The machinist cannot enter the kitchen. However, the machinist may eat the meal prepared by the cook.

  • Storing treasures in vaults.

The sole purpose of the kernel is the creation of isolated compartments and the controlled and explicitly authorized interaction between compartments. The less complex the kernel, the smaller is the chance of cracks in the walls between the compartments. With a microkernel of less than 15K lines of code, there is a realistic chance that the kernel is completely free from vulnerabilities.

With the correctness of the kernel assured, the system structure as set forth by Genode paves the ground for the realistic assessment of residual risks. For any compartment, one may investigate the following questions:

  • How can the compartment possibly be reached by an attacker? E.g., a network-facing program may be at high risk, compared to a program that drives a single non-network device.

  • What would happen in the event the compartment gets compromised?

  • Assuming the compartment falls completely into the hands of an attacker, what negative effects on other compartments and the system as a whole could the attacker accomplish?

  • What is the complexity of the compartment and its transitive dependencies - the trusted computing base of the compartment?

Security becomes quantifyable. That is what we mean when speaking of security.