Saltzer and Schroeder’s principles

Way back when, Jerome Saltzer and Michael Schroeder wrote a paper ‘The Protection of Information in Computer Systems‘. That paper has sometimes been called one of the most cited, but least read works in computer security history. As I refer to the principles in a number of posts here they are in all their glory. As a by the way there are actually ten principles, rather than the eight that are oft quoted. And as another by the way, although S&S noted that the last two principles were only sometimes applicable, with the passage of time they have assumed greater prominence and should be rightfully considered as part of the pantheon.  🙂

Economy of mechanism

Keep the design as simple and small as possible. This well-known principle applies to any aspect of a system, but it deserves emphasis for protection mechanisms for this reason: design and implementation errors that result in unwanted access paths will not be noticed during normal use (since normal use usually does not include attempts to exercise improper access paths). As a result, techniques such as line-by-line inspection of software and physical examination of hardware that implements protection mechanisms are necessary. For such techniques to be successful, a small and simple design is essential.

Fail safe defaults

Base access decisions on permission rather than exclusion. This principle, suggested by E. Glaser in 1965 means that the default situation is lack of access, and the protection scheme identifies conditions under which access is permitted. The alternative, in which mechanisms attempt to identify conditions under which access should be refused, presents the wrong psychological base for secure system design. A conservative design must be based on arguments why objects should be accessible, rather than why they should not. In a large system some objects will be inadequately considered, so a default of lack of permission is safer. A design or implementation mistake in a mechanism that gives explicit permission tends to fail by refusing permission, a safe situation, since it will be quickly detected. On the other hand, a design or implementation mistake in a mechanism that explicitly excludes access tends to fail by allowing access, a failure which may go unnoticed in normal use. This principle applies both to the outward appearance of the protection mechanism and to its underlying implementation.

Complete mediation

Every access to every object must be checked for authority. This principle, when systematically applied, is the primary underpinning of the protection system. It forces a system-wide view of access control, which in addition to normal operation includes initialization, recovery, shutdown, and maintenance. It implies that a foolproof method of identifying the source of every request must be devised. It also requires that proposals to gain performance by remembering the result of an authority check be examined skeptically. If a change in authority occurs, such remembered results must be systematically updated.

Least privilege

Every program and every user of the system should operate using the least set of privileges necessary to complete the job. Primarily, this principle limits the damage that can result from an accident or error. It also reduces the number of potential interactions among privileged programs to the minimum for correct operation, so that unintentional, unwanted, or improper uses of privilege are less likely to occur. Thus, if a question arises related to misuse of a privilege, the number of programs that must be audited is minimized. Put another way, if a mechanism can provide “firewalls,” the principle of least privilege provides a rationale for where to install the firewalls. The military security rule of “need-to-know” is an example of this principle.

Least common mechanism

Minimize the amount of mechanism common to more than one user and depended on by all users. Every shared mechanism (especially one involving shared variables) represents a potential information path between users and must be designed with great care to be sure it does not unintentionally compromise security. Further, any mechanism serving all users must be certified to the satisfaction of every user, a job presumably harder than satisfying only one or a few users. For example, given the choice of implementing a new function as a supervisor procedure shared by all users or as a library procedure that can be handled as though it were the user’s own, choose the latter course. Then, if one or a few users are not satisfied with the level of certification of the function, they can provide a substitute or not use it at all. Either way, they can avoid being harmed by a mistake in it.

Separation of privilege

Where feasible, a protection mechanism that requires two keys to unlock it is more robust and flexible than one that allows access to the presenter of only a single key. The relevance of this observation to computer systems was pointed out by R. Needham in 1973. The reason is that, once the mechanism is locked, the two keys can be physically separated and distinct programs, organizations, or individuals made responsible for them. From then on, no single accident, deception, or breach of trust is sufficient to compromise the protected information. This principle is often used in bank safe-deposit boxes. It is also at work in the defense system that fires a nuclear weapon only if two different people both give the correct command. In a computer system, separated keys apply to any situation in which two or more conditions must be met before access should be permitted. For example, systems providing user-extendible protected data types usually depend on separation of privilege for their implementation.

Open design

The design should not be secret. The mechanisms should not depend on the ignorance of potential attackers, but rather on the possession of specific, more easily protected, keys or passwords. This decoupling of protection mechanisms from protection keys permits the mechanisms to be examined by many reviewers without concern that the review may itself compromise the safeguards. In addition, any skeptical user may be allowed to convince himself that the system he is about to use is adequate for his purpose. Finally, it is simply not realistic to attempt to maintain secrecy for any system which receives wide distribution.

Psychological acceptability

It is essential that the human interface be designed for ease of use, so that users routinely and automatically apply the protection mechanisms correctly. Also, to the extent that the user’s mental image of his protection goals matches the mechanisms he must use, mistakes will be minimized. If he must translate his image of his protection needs into a radically different specification language, he will make errors.

Work factor

Compare the cost of circumventing the mechanism with the resources of a potential attacker. The cost of circumventing, commonly known as the “work factor,” in some cases can be easily calculated. For example, the number of experiments needed to try all possible four letter alphabetic passwords is 264 = 456 976. If the potential attacker must enter each experimental password at a terminal, one might consider a four-letter password to be adequate. On the other hand, if the attacker could use a large computer capable of trying a million passwords per second, as might be the case where industrial espionage or military security is being considered, a four-letter password would be a minor barrier for a potential intruder. The trouble with the work factor principle is that many computer protection mechanisms are not susceptible to direct work factor calculation, since defeating them by systematic attack may be logically impossible. Defeat can be accomplished only by indirect strategies, such as waiting for an accidental hardware failure or searching for an error in implementation. Reliable estimates of the length of such a wait or search are very difficult to make.

Compromise recording

It is sometimes suggested that mechanisms that reliably record that a compromise of information has occurred can be used in place of more elaborate mechanisms that completely prevent loss. For example, if a tactical plan is known to have been compromised, it may be possible to construct a different one, rendering the compromised version worthless. An unbreakable padlock on a flimsy file cabinet is an example of such a mechanism. Although the information stored inside may be easy to obtain, the cabinet will inevitably be damaged in the process and the next legitimate user will detect the loss. For another example, many computer systems record the date and time of the most recent use of each file. If this record is tamperproof and reported to the owner, it may help discover un-authorized use. In computer systems, this approach is used rarely, since it is difficult to guarantee discovery once security is broken. Physical damage usually is not involved, and logical damage (and internally stored records of tampering) can be undone by a clever attacker.

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