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Book Reviews Books Media

SELinux by Example 77

Ravi writes "SELinux is a project started and actively maintained by the U.S Department of Defense to provide a Mandatory Access Controls mechanism in Linux. It had been a long standing grouse of Linux power users and system administrators over its lack of fine grained access control over various running processes as well as files in Linux. While Solaris touts its famous RBAC and Microsoft Windows has its own way of providing finer rights to its resources, Linux had to put up with the simple but crude user rights known in tech speak as discretionary access control to control user access of files. With SELinux project making great strides and now being bundled with many major Linux distributions, it is possible to effectively lock down a Linux system through judicious use of SELinux policies. SELinux implements a more flexible form of MAC called type enforcement and an optional form of multilevel security." Read the rest of Ravi's review.
SELinux by Example
author Frank Mayer, David Caplan, Karl MacMillan
pages 425
publisher Prentice Hall
rating 8
reviewer Ravi Kumar
ISBN 0131963694
summary This book imparts a deep understanding of the features, structure, syntax and working of SELinux

The book SELinux by Example is authored by three people — Frank Mayer, Karl Macmillan and David Caplan and is published by Prentice Hall. There are a total of 14 chapters and 4 appendices spread just over 400 pages. The 14 chapters are in turn broadly divided into three parts with the first part containing chapters which provide an overview of SELinux, its background and the concepts behind it. The second part contains 7 chapters which are most useful for SELinux policy writers and contain detailed explanation of the syntax used in writing the policy files. It is the third part, "Creating and Writing SELinux Security Policies" which could be most put to use by system administrators.

In the second chapter, the authors introduce the concept of type enforcement access control, the understanding of which is imperative to ones knowledge of SELinux. They further discuss the concept of roles and multi level security. True to the title of the book, all these concepts are explained by analyzing the security controls of the ubiquitous passwd program.

In the succeeding chapter the authors explain the underlying architecture of SELinux. More specifically, how SELinux integrates with the Linux kernel via the Linux security module (LSM), the organization of the policy source file and how to build and install policies.

SELinux policies to a large extent are based on object classes. For example, you can create an object class and associate a set of permissions to that class. All objects associated with that class will share the same set of permissions. In the fourth chapter, one get to know about different types of object classes and the permissions that can be assigned to these classes. A total of 40 classes and 48 permissions are discussed in this chapter.

The next chapter titled "Types Enforcement" goes into a detailed analysis of all the types and attributes as well as the rules that could be used. The majority of SELinux policy is a set of statements and rules that collectively define the type enforcement policy. Going through the chapter, I was able to get a fair idea of the syntax used in writing TE policies.

Keeping in mind the complexity of the subject, it helps a great deal that at the end of each chapter there is a summary section where the authors have listed the important points covered. More over, one gets to answer a couple of questions and check one's knowledge about the topic being discussed.

In the 6th chapter, the authors explain in detail the concept of roles and their relationship in SELinux. What I really like about this book is the fact that each concept of SELinux has been dedicated a chapter of its own. For instance, constraints, multilevel security, type enforcement, conditional policies,... all are explained in chapters of their own.

One thing worth noting is that Fedora Core 4 and RHEL 4 and above ship with the targeted policy by default. Where as to completely lock down a Linux machine, you need to embrace the strict SELinux policy. This has the side effect of causing breakages with some of the existing Linux applications which expect looser security controls. In targeted policy, the more confining rules are focused on a subset of likely to be attacked network applications. In most cases, one can manage by using targeted policy. This book mostly deals with the strict policy of SELinux and in chapter 11, the authors dissect the strict example policy maintained and updated via the NSA and Fedora Core mailing lists.

There is another policy called the Reference Policy which is an attempt to water down the strict policy maintained by NSA. In the process making it easier to use, understand, maintain, and more modular. This is covered in the succeeding chapter titled "Reference Policy".

The next chapter titled "Managing an SELinux system" is one which the system administrators will relate to, where the authors throw light on the hierarchy of SELinux configuration files. The purpose of each file is explained in simple terms. Considering that SELinux comes bundled with a rich set of tools meant to be used by system administrators, one gets to know the usage of some of them and also learn about the common problems that are faced by administrators while administering an SELinux system.

In the last chapter of the book, one is introduced to the task of writing policy modules. Here the authors hand hold in the creation of a policy module for the IRC daemon for Fedora Core 4, from the planning stage to writing and applying the policy module, to the final testing.

The book also includes 4 appendices which contain a wealth of knowledge on SELinux. I especially liked appendix C which lists all the object classes and permissions as well as appendix D which has a list of SELinux system tools and third party utilities with explanations.

I found that I was better able to assimilate what the authors explained when I read the 13th chapter of this book first and then went back to read the 4th chapter onwards. Having said that, I find this book to be an excellent resource for people interested in developing SELinux policies and to a slightly lesser extent a resource for system administrators. At the very least, this book imparts a deep understanding of the features, structure, syntax and working of SELinux.

Ravi Kumar maintains a blog at linuxhelp.blogspot.com where he shares his thoughts and experiences on all things related to Linux.

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SELinux by Example

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  • Re:AppArmor? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by 99BottlesOfBeerInMyF ( 813746 ) on Wednesday March 14, 2007 @05:14PM (#18354207)

    It seems to me that AppArmor is still a much more suitable tool for MAC under Linux for 99% of the systems that need it.

    The truth is, the vast majority of systems don't need either, but the concept is a nice security architecture to have in place for those rare instances where it is needed and as a built in part of security going forward.

    Having used both SELinux and AppArmor I can say there's no comparison in terms of effectiveness. If a security tool it too complex to use it will be used incorrectly and can lead to even worse security problems. I would rather stick with a much simpler approach that still provides all the confinement of MAC but only where I need it.

    If you're trying to secure a system today, you might be better of with AppArmor from what I understand. If you're trying to decide upon a MAC architecture that will be part of Linux going forward, SELinux looks like a much better bet. Ubiquitous application of MAC is a big win in the long run. Building on the best base and then creating in the tools to effectively use it seems like a wise approach to me. I foresee a time when MAC will play a vital role in securing desktop machines and I think most of the configuration woes are solvable by the addition of policies as part of applications and for application types and trust levels on a system by system basis. You don't want Joe Sixpack configuring this any more than you want him configuring a firewall, but instead it makes sense to present end users with a system that "just works" built upon SELinux.

  • Re:huh? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by kestasjk ( 933987 ) * on Wednesday March 14, 2007 @08:34PM (#18356605) Homepage

    While they (grudgingly) accepted the release of SELinux, probably due to business concerns associated with suing a major and prestigious customer such as the NSA, they have never been all that happy about the open availability of the core concepts of their firewall product.
    Then why not use BSD (which already is going down this road with TrustedBSD)? Why not keep the changes to yourself? (the GPL doesn't force to release the changed code unless you're distributing it)

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