7.1. Follow Good Software Engineering Principles for Secure Programs

Saltzer [1974] and later Saltzer and Schroeder [1975] list the following principles of the design of secure protection systems, which are still valid:

  • Least privilege. Each user and program should operate using the fewest privileges possible. This principle limits the damage from an accident, error, or attack. It also reduces the number of potential interactions among privileged programs, so unintentional, unwanted, or improper uses of privilege are less likely to occur. This idea can be extended to the internals of a program: only the smallest portion of the program which needs those privileges should have them. See Section 7.4 for more about how to do this.

  • Economy of mechanism/Simplicity. The protection system's design should be simple and small as possible. In their words, ``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.'' This is sometimes described as the ``KISS'' principle (``keep it simple, stupid'').

  • Open design. The protection mechanism must not depend on attacker ignorance. Instead, the mechanism should be public, depending on the secrecy of relatively few (and easily changeable) items like passwords or private keys. An open design makes extensive public scrutiny possible, and it also makes it possible for users to convince themselves that the system about to be used is adequate. Frankly, it isn't realistic to try to maintain secrecy for a system that is widely distributed; decompilers and subverted hardware can quickly expose any ``secrets'' in an implementation. Bruce Schneier argues that smart engineers should ``demand open source code for anything related to security'', as well as ensuring that it receives widespread review and that any identified problems are fixed [Schneier 1999].

  • Complete mediation. Every access attempt must be checked; position the mechanism so it cannot be subverted. For example, in a client-server model, generally the server must do all access checking because users can build or modify their own clients. This is the point of all of Chapter 5, as well as Section 7.2.

  • Fail-safe defaults (e.g., permission-based approach). The default should be denial of service, and the protection scheme should then identify conditions under which access is permitted. See Section 7.7 and Section 7.9 for more.

  • Separation of privilege. Ideally, access to objects should depend on more than one condition, so that defeating one protection system won't enable complete access.

  • Least common mechanism. Minimize the amount and use of shared mechanisms (e.g. use of the /tmp or /var/tmp directories). Shared objects provide potentially dangerous channels for information flow and unintended interactions. See Section 7.10 for more information.

  • Psychological acceptability / Easy to use. The human interface must be designed for ease of use so users will routinely and automatically use the protection mechanisms correctly. Mistakes will be reduced if the security mechanisms closely match the user's mental image of his or her protection goals.

A good overview of various design principles for security is available in Peter Neumann's Principled Assuredly Trustworthy Composable Architectures.

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