Enhancing security in distributed systems with trusted computing hardware

Reid, Jason Frederick (2007) Enhancing security in distributed systems with trusted computing hardware. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


The need to increase the hostile attack resilience of distributed and internet-worked computer systems is critical and pressing. This thesis contributes to concrete improvements in distributed systems trustworthiness through an enhanced understanding of a technical approach known as trusted computing hardware. Because of its physical and logical protection features, trusted computing hardware can reliably enforce a security policy in a threat model where the authorised user is untrusted or when the device is placed in a hostile environment.

We present a critical analysis of vulnerabilities in current systems, and argue that current industry-driven trusted computing initiatives will fail in efforts to retrofit security into inherently flawed operating system designs, since there is no substitute for a sound protection architecture grounded in hardware-enforced domain isolation. In doing so we identify the limitations of hardware-based approaches. We argue that the current emphasis of these programs does not give sufficient weight to the role that operating system security plays in overall system security. New processor features that provide hardware support for virtualisation will contribute more to practical security improvement because they will allow multiple operating systems to concurrently share the same processor. New operating systems that implement a sound protection architecture will thus be able to be introduced to support applications with stringent security requirements. These can coexist alongside inherently less secure mainstream operating systems, allowing a gradual migration to less vulnerable alternatives.

We examine the effectiveness of the ITSEC and Common Criteria evaluation and certification schemes as a basis for establishing assurance in trusted computing hardware. Based on a survey of smart card certifications, we contend that the practice of artificially limiting the scope of an evaluation in order to gain a higher assurance rating is quite common. Due to a general lack of understanding in the marketplace as to how the schemes work, high evaluation assurance levels are confused with a general notion of 'high security strength'. Vendors invest little effort in correcting the misconception since they benefit from it and this has arguably undermined the value of the whole certification process.

We contribute practical techniques for securing personal trusted hardware devices against a type of attack known as a relay attack. Our method is based on a novel application of a phenomenon known as side channel leakage, heretofore considered exclusively as a security vulnerability. We exploit the low latency of side channel information transfer to deliver a communication channel with timing resolution that is fine enough to detect sophisticated relay attacks. We avoid the cost and complexity associated with alternative communication techniques suggested in previous proposals. We also propose the first terrorist attack resistant distance bounding protocol that is efficient enough to be implemented on resource constrained devices.

We propose a design for a privacy sensitive electronic cash scheme that leverages the confidentiality and integrity protection features of trusted computing hardware. We specify the command set and message structures and implement these in a prototype that uses Dallas Semiconductor iButtons.

We consider the access control requirements for a national scale electronic health records system of the type that Australia is currently developing. We argue that an access control model capable of supporting explicit denial of privileges is required to ensure that consumers maintain their right to grant or withhold consent to disclosure of their sensitive health information in an electronic system. Finding this feature absent in standard role-based access control models, we propose a modification to role-based access control that supports policy constructs of this type. Explicit denial is difficult to enforce in a large scale system without an active central authority but centralisation impacts negatively on system scalability. We show how the unique properties of trusted computing hardware can address this problem. We outline a conceptual architecture for an electronic health records access control system that leverages hardware level CPU virtualisation, trusted platform modules, personal cryptographic tokens and secure coprocessors to implement role based cryptographic access control. We argue that the design delivers important scalability benefits because it enables access control decisions to be made and enforced locally on a user's computing platform in a reliable way.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 16379
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Dawson, Edward, Caelli, William, & Looi, Mark
Keywords: trusted computing, trusted computing hardware, trusted systems, operating system security, distributed systems security, smart card, security evaluation, tamper resistance, distance bounding protocol, side channel leakage, electronic cash, electronic health records, role-based access control
Department: Cross-Faculty Collaboration
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Copyright Owner: Copyright Jason Frederick Reid
Deposited On: 03 Dec 2008 04:02
Last Modified: 28 Oct 2011 19:47

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