Desktop System Security Architecture

Over the last few days, Windows users have been hit with yet another email worm. Like many others, this one, the so-called “MyDoom” worm, entices the user to click on a file sent as an email attachment. This mode of attack has been around for a while, though this most recent incarnation is particularly clever; it masquerades as an email system error.

This particular worm doesn’t seem to exploit a buffer overrun or other similar weakness in order to do its evil; it simply runs when the user opens it. Once it’s running, it attaches itself to operating system components in a manner calculated to make it difficult to remove, then replicates itself by sending out a lot of email to users in the victim’s address book.

What I find particularly fascinating about all of this is the fact that this is being treated primarily as a user education issue. While it’s true that a savvy user can dodge this attack completely by simply not opening the attachment in question, one might still rightly ask, “Why is it that users have to be security-savvy in order to effectively use their computers?” Many of the security problems that we see are, in fact, caused by architectural flaws.

The lack of distinction between executable files and data is the first problem. Windows differentiates between data files and programs through file naming convention; the mere construction of a filename is sufficient to get the operating system to attempt to run it if the user should happen to click on it within the GUI.

Other operating systems don’t do this. Unix systems have an attribute separate from the filename that indicates that the file is executable code. This attribute (a permission bit, actually) must be set in order for the code to execute in response to a click from within the GUI (or, for that matter, in response to actions in the command-line interface). Had this worm been effective on a Unix system, it would have required that the user save the attachment as a file, modify the executable permissions for the file, then invoke the application. Most other non-Unix systems with which I’ve worked are similar; you have to either explicitly communicate to the operating system “run this file as a program” or somehow bless the file in order to turn it into an application.

Once the application is running, we discover the next major architectural flaw: it’s possible for most users of Windows to modify the behavior of the operating system itself without realizing it. Most modern operating systems require a user to be in some sort of a privileged mode in order to install applications or otherwise change the behavior of the system. The “su” command (or, better yet, the “sudo” command) in Unix allows one to assume “superuser” privileges for this purpose. In Windows, you have to be logged in as a user with administrative rights to the computer, but there’s no simple way to assume and release privileges for the purpose of installing an application. So most users (outside the most restrictive of corporate environments) use their Windows environments from a login with full administrative privileges. This is the equivalent of running one’s Unix environment while logged in as “root,” a practice regarded as reckless and incompetent. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to get work done in Windows any other way.

As a result, malware like the MyDoom worm can take advantage of these administrative privileges in order to make itself harder to remove. It’s quite common for such applications to add themselves to the list of things that run when the computer is started up. One variant of the MyDoom worm even goes so far as to damage a network configuration file in order to make it difficult for antivirus software to download updated signature files. These attacks work only because the worm is easily able to gain administrative rights to the computer. There’s certainly plenty of mischief that can be perpetrated as an ordinary user, but it’s quite a bit easier to prevent when the OS is off-limits. And, when bad things do happen, it’s vastly easier to clean up the damage when the integrity of the operating system itself isn’t in question.

So, the next time you hear the claim that a security problem is caused by a user acting stupid, consider this: is it really the case that the user is stupid, or is the real stupidity the set of architectural decisions that enable the user to make mistakes?

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