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11.10. Access Control Systems

Access control is an operating system built-in protection mechanism. For example, the division of virtual memory to user and kernel lands is a form of typical access control.

Discretionary access control systems (DACs) are implemented at the discretion of the user. The owner of an object (usually the creator of the object) has authority over who else might access a particular object. Examples include the UNIX file permission, and user name, password system. In addition DAC uses optional access control lists (ACLs) to restrict access to objects based on user or group identification numbers. Note that DAC cannot differentiate the real owner from anybody else. This means that any program will enjoy the access rights of the user who executed the object.

Mandatory access control (MAC) includes aspects that the user cannot control. In a MAC environment, the access to the information is controlled according to a policy, no matter who created the information. Under MAC, objects are tagged with labels that represent the sensitivity of the objects. The tagging is implemented by the operating system automatically. Thus a regular user cannot change labels on the MAC. An example of this is the Trusted Solaris which implements the Bell-LaPadula model. MAC was designed mainly with confidentially in mind with focus on military domains. The policy compares a user's current sensitivity label with the object being accessed.

Frederick Cohen's early experience demonstrated37 that access control systems do not work very effectively against computer viruses. This is because the computer virus problem is an integrity problem, not a confidentiality problem.

DAC fails because a virus that has infected a program runs with all the rights given to that program (usually the rights of the user who created the program). Thus a virus can infect all other programs that belong to that user. In addition, on a multi-user system, there is some sort of information sharing between the users. This means that an infected object of a particular user might be executed by another user who has access to the infected object. When the infected object is executed, it runs with the rights of the user who executed it. Thus the virus is able to infect objects on his/her system as well. The infection continues further, and eventually all users of the system might get infected. Cohen demonstrated that a virus could gain root access within minutes.

Indeed, the only ways to control virus infections is to

  • Limit functionality

    Most refrigerators cannot get infected with computer viruses. However, some newer models extend functionality with built-in operating systems and might be exposed to computer viruses in the future.

  • Limit sharing of information

    An isolated computer cannot get infected with a computer virus.

  • Limit the transitivity of the information flow

    When user A can send information to user B, and user B sends information to user C, it does not mean that user A can send information to user C.

In case of MAC, a policy specifies which class of users is allowed to pass information to another class. Users are only allowed to pass information to the same protection ring in which they are, as well as to "lower" protection rings. Thus MAC fails because a virus can infect any user in the same protection ring and in "lower" protection rings as well. As a result, access control systems slow down computer virus infections but do not eliminate the problem.

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