NSA RELEASES PROTOTYPE SECURITY-ENHANCED LINUX SYSTEM

January 12, 2001

FEATURES AND COMMENTARY

Washington, D.C. — Brian Krebs has reported for Newsbytes: Citing the need for an operating system that will ensure the security of some of the nation’s most top secret information, the National Security Agency (NSA) has developed and released a prototype ultra-secure version of the Linux operating system.

The new prototype OS was developed with the help of Secure Computing Corp., which in January last year won the contract to develop a highly secure version of the Linux operating system for possible use in the NSA’s computers. Linux is an “open source” operating system, made popular in part because it allows users to access and customize its source code.

The prototype Linux version released earlier this week relies heavily on Secure Computing’s proprietary “Type Enforcement” (TE) framework, a policy that establishes the rules which governs whether or not the action that an operator is requesting to perform should be allowed or not. TE also compartmentalizes system users into strictly defined roles, and does not allow restricted users to execute programs in specific areas of the network.

An NSA spokesman said the agency completed work on the new OS several months ago, but had been configuring the system and modifying user space applications for the few months leading up to Tuesday’s release.

The NSA said it is billing its Linux release as a “research prototype” intended to demonstrate how mandatory access controls can be added to a mainstream operating system, and as such will not be able to offer the level of support that users would expect from a commercial product. However, the NSA added that it intends to field questions from the development community via its mailing list, [email protected]

“If successful in our strategy, the Linux community would assume ownership of this technology and we would continue our involvement with the community that will maintain it,” an NSA spokesperson said.

While the US government still largely relies on various iterations of Microsoft Windows as its choice of operating systems, a number of federal agencies – including NASA and several of the Pentagon’s research arms – have begun to make use of open source software and different variations of Linux. In September, the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) issued a report calling for greater government support for open source software.

The NSA said it is currently working to bring the security enhancements to a more current kernel (the core of Linux that handles the most essential operating system tasks), such as Linux 2.4, and that other work will follow based upon feedback from the programming community in an effort to move toward possible inclusion in the 2.5 kernel.

For more information on the NSA’s Linux release visit: http://www.nsa.gov/releases/selinux_01022001.html

Secure Computing Corp. can be found online at http://www.securecomputing.com

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