Computer Security Fundamentals

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There are many, many articles on configuring particular software or operating systems for security. The quality varies widely, and most of them miss out one or more important points. Perhaps a better approach might be to start with the basic concepts, and then apply those to the system, rather than just working with lists of tweaks. Here is an attempt to define some of the basic technical issues of computer security, in plain language.

Computer Security Threats

Although new viruses and security flaws are announced daily, threats fall into several well-understood categories. Various threats of these types have been in existence for many years, and a wide range of approaches have been developed to mitigate or remove the risks that they pose. Today, developers may design applications and network services to avoid behavior that is known to be potentially unsafe, and implement specialized countermeasures within the main operating system itself. Current operating systems include both technologies that can operate with a high level of security, as well as various built-in defenses against particular classes of attack.

The common types of threat to networked computer systems include:

  • Malicious Software Applications, such as viruses, often designed to modify the host system or transmit data from the host to other systems without the approval of a user
  • Malicious Servers created to exploit vulnerabilities in the software that accesses them
  • Unauthorized Access through Network Services by specialized cracking tools that are designed to gain access to the target system over the network
  • Denial of Service Attacks that make an accessible service or system unable to function, usually by deliberately overloading the target
  • Interception of Information transmitted between systems over a network
  • User Behavior such as accidental errors and, more rarely, deliberate attempts to compromise the system

Encryption and Verification are Central

All data encryption software provides one or both of these separate guarantees:

  • That there is no risk that data has been disclosed to any unauthorized person
  • That data has not been tainted, or secretly modified by an unauthorized person

Sometimes, the potential for doubt is more significant than the actual risks. A particularly sensitive document might have to be treated as being compromised if there is any possibility that has been disclosed or tampered with, even if there is no certainty that either has actually occurred.

In many situations, the second type of guarantee is much more significant. Even data that is meant to be public might become a risk if it was to be modified by a malicious person. This may be prevented by simply providing checksums for the files that you publish, or by digitally signing each file. Many popular desktop applications on all platforms may now verify signed files on behalf on the user. All UNIX-like systems also include utilities for both checksums to test that the contents of a file match the original, and for digital signatures to associate files with a verifiable identity.

The same defenses also offer a way to protect against data corruption or permanent loss. Once a file has been signed or a checksum has been made for it, every copy can be tested at any time against the signature or checksum. If a signed or checksummed file is intended to be published then you actually improve security by making as many copies as possible. Once the file has been distributed it cannot be lost if an individual system fails, and any of the copies can be verified to ensure that they are valid.

Content encryption encodes a copy of a file, so that it may not be read at all without providing the designated passphrase or key. To be sure that genuinely sensitive information has not been disclosed, you must encrypt the contents of every copy. If an unencrypted copy exists, then you cannot guarantee that the information has not been accessed.

Encrypting the stored copies of files introduces a different risk - that users may become unable to access their own data by forgetting passphrases or losing keys. This must be balanced against the consequences of disclosure or tampering, and the correct trade-off depends upon the circumstances. In some cases, the possible consequences of a third-party obtaining the information held in a particular file are more severe than the consequences of losing the data altogether.

HTTP and most other network protocols support the option of encrypted transfers, so that you may ensure that information cannot be disclosed or intercepted as it is transmitted over a network. UNIX-like systems use SSH by default, which automatically encrypts all communications between the sender and the receiver. Such encrypted transfers only protect information whilst it is being transmitted, and cannot safeguard the cached or stored copies on each system.

Every program and piece of data that a system actively uses must be loaded into memory (RAM), and these in-memory copies must also be protected from attack.

Systems Must Protect Memory As Well As Storage

An attacker with access to a system can bypass many defenses by leaving the stored copies of programs and data untouched, and attempting to modify the copies that are in memory instead. Current versions of most popular operating systems all use memory protection features by default, and so there is now no reason to accept an operating system that does not automatically provide them. Look for buffer overflow defenses (commonly known as stack-smashing protection), ASLR (Address Space Layout Randomization), and executable space protection.

Executable Space Protection May Require a 64-bit Operating System: Executable space protection works best with the support built-in to 64-bit processors, and for backward-compatibility, several Linux distributions disable the feature when they run on 32-bit Intel-compatible machines. To ensure that executable space protection functions correctly, you must run a 64-bit version of the operating system on a 64-bit computer.

Unfortunately, many operating systems weaken security by not enabling their swap security features by default. Every mainstream operating system today extends the amount of memory available by configuring virtual memory, also known as swap. This ensures that a system will keep functioning if it uses all of the physical memory available, as some of the contents of the memory will simply be swapped out to the virtual memory area on disk, and swapped in again when required. It also means that sensitive data may be written from memory to the swap file or partition. If the swap area is not either wiped or encrypted when the system shuts down then an attacker with access to the system can read any information still in the virtual memory.

The Importance of Physical Security

Data encryption and verification actually provide the only effective defenses against an attacker with physical control over the system. An attacker with physical access to a machine can ignore network security, and may eventually circumvent any other software security measure in place, regardless of the operating system. There is no substitute for restricting physical access to systems and data.

In practice, though, many computers today must be physically accessible. A laptop or smart phone is a portable computer by definition. For this reason, always store copies of your data on systems that are held in secure locations. Where possible, avoid keeping sensitive information on portable or easily accessible computers.

The section below discusses encrypted storage facilities that enable you to protect the data on systems that cannot be kept in safe locations.

Case Security: To reduce the risks of casual tampering or theft, fit locks on machines that will be used in controlled but publicly accessible locations. Many computer cases include either padlock loops, or slots for Kensington notebook locks.

You must also protect backup media, such as tapes. Anyone with access to a backup of a system may read or copy files that have been held on that system, including the password databases. Again, consider using encryption to protect the data stored on backup media from unauthorized access.

Vulnerabilities in the Computer Boot Process

Standard computers use three components in their boot process, each of which must be protected:

  • The BIOS (Basic Input/Output System), or firmware, of the computer
  • The boot loader that manages access to all of the installed operating systems
  • The boot process for each operating system, which may load that system in one of several modes, some of which may use reduced security

Once a computer starts, the BIOS activates the hardware and starts the boot loader software on either an internal hard drive, or a removable device. The boot loader generates a menu of options, and may launch one of the operating systems by default. Most operating systems install a boot loader that also enables users to customize the boot process and run built-in maintenance tools.

If the BIOS is not password protected, then anyone with physical access to the machine may configure it to boot from a disc or removable device, and load an operating system of their own choosing. Once this occurs, any unencrypted file on the machine itself may be compromised.

Attackers may also gain unrestricted access to files through the boot loader, by using custom boot options or the boot loader maintenance utilities to access an installed operating system. These methods may also allow them to partially boot and use an existing operating system without having to enter a username or a password. For this reason, you should set a boot loader password to limit boot options to predefined choices, or your system may be compromised before any operating system security can take effect.

Every popular operating system may be booted in one of several preset recovery, safe, or single-user modes which only load a limited version of the system. These enable you to access a partially functioning system in order to repair it. To make system recovery more convenient, the default configurations of several Linux distributions also enable a system to start in a single-user mode and offer a command prompt without requiring any password from a user. Ensure that you enable security for the built-in single-user or recovery mode, unless the computer is held in a restricted location, such as a server room.

Understanding Viruses and Spyware

Computer viruses run in an operating system or application to embed copies of themselves into files, such as emails, documents, and programs. These infected files may be transferred to other systems by users. Some viruses also trigger email or file sharing features to directly copy themselves to other systems.

Almost all computer viruses today use, and require, specific features in Microsoft products in order to reproduce themselves. Some spyware programs also use features of Microsoft products to install themselves on Windows systems without the consent of a user. Other spyware products for Windows claim to provide useful features, in order to convince users to install them. Products from other vendors do not have the legacy design flaws that have made automated malware so common on Microsoft products. This does not mean that other software is immune to malware - no popular operating system today can protect itself against software that a user deliberately chooses to install.

OpenSolaris and most Linux systems have some defense against malicious software, in the form of approved software distribution channels. All of the software initially installed on these systems is supplied by the distribution provider, and a range of additional software is also packaged by the provider, and offered from known sites. Administrators may choose to only install software that has been packaged and tested by the distribution provider, and avoid the need to trust any software that is offered by third-parties.

Avoid Copying or Sending Suspicious Emails and Files: All operating systems may store or forward files that are infected with viruses. Any virus will remain within an infected file even if the file passes through a system that is immune to the enclosed virus.

Security is Risk Management

Software products vary widely in quality and security. In all cases, the responsibility is on administrators to know the capabilities and limitations of the software available to them, and consider the overall security of the infrastructure that they maintain. The key is always to consider the whole system and environment, in the light of the points described above.

Beyond that, the most effective way to further reduce risk is to minimize the amount of software on any system. Current versions of popular operating systems offer options for minimal installations, which provide the least software needed for a functional system. This can be combined with the automated installation options to guarantee that every system starts with a known, low risk configuration. Further software can then be added in a controlled manner.

A large number of security problems today arise from a small number of products that are known to be higher risk, and you may significantly improve the security of your systems simply by knowing these, and minimizing your use of them. When you evaluate new products, look at the security alerts that have been issued. A high risk product will have a history of security problems, often involving variations of the same class of vulnerability.

As most users do not evaluate the security of their software, you should not assume that either the popularity of any individual product or the size of the provider are any measurement of security. History has proven that even severe security lapses have little long-term effect on the popularity of a product, or the financial success of vendors. Unfortunately, unsafe products may remain extremely popular and widely used even after superior alternatives have become available.

The final risk factor is the responsiveness of the software maintainer. No software is risk-free, and the most secure configuration may be compromised at any time by a newly uncovered bug in one of the software components. Where possible, choose software whose maintainers disclose issues and fixes promptly and responsibly. Again, vendors vary widely, and the best insurance is good research by the system administrators.