The Inevitability of Failure:
The Flawed Assumption of Security in Modern Computing Environments
Peter A. Loscocco, Stephen D. Smalley, Patrick A. Muckelbauer, Ruth C. Taylor, S. Jeff Turner, John F. Farrell
National Security Agency
Although public awareness of the need for security in computing systems is growing rapidly, current efforts to provide security are unlikely to succeed. Current security efforts suffer from the flawed assumption that adequate security can be provided in applications with the existing security mechanisms of mainstream operating systems. In reality, the need for secure operating systems is growing in today’s com puting environment due to substantial increases in connectivity and data sharing. The goal of this paper is to motivate a renewed interest in secure operating systems so that future security efforts may build on a solid foundation.
The paper is a relic of its era; a one-size-fits-all approach to security policy – profoundly hierarchical and tunnel-visioned.
The unpalatable truth which the paper avoided addressing – perhaps we did not realise it back then – is that policy drives security, not the other way around.
There’s nothing wrong with doing “secure operating system research” – quite the opposite, I’d love to be paid to fart around with platforms that start with a threat model and then implement novel ways of ensuring that bad people get to achieve nothing with whatever you build.
But Mandatory Access Control and Trusted Paths are fiddly to control and are also means to enable bad things happening – really bad things like censorship or – worse – disintermediating the user from his machine, by which I mean third parties being permitted to mess around with the content you’ve ostensibly purchased on the hardware you have also ostensibly purchased.
After a while one must wonder that if the world has not collapsed in spite of 15+ years of these problems remaining unsolved, perhaps this indicates something?
Perhaps lack of security is not and never has been or will be the cause of the death of the Internet?
Absolute security is a myth because there is no universal, one-size-fits-all threat model, and humanity is very good at living without the safetynet of mandatory access control and trusted paths (etc) – and surviving the occasional fall.
The internet works because people by and large are mostly-honest and mostly-good; that’s not going change terribly quickly if at all.
For all future authors: to decry an effective, functioning reality as “insecure” is a matter of perspective, and the onus should be placed upon the speaker to demonstrate beyond the claim that “bad things could happen” that instead we all are losing out on economically and humanly desirable opportunity that somehow we are currently entirely missing.