Architectural Concepts and Definitions

The Flask operating system security architecture provides flexible support for mandatory access control (MAC) policies[SpencerUsenixSec1999]. The SELinux implementation of the Flask architecture is described in [LoscoccoFreenix2001]. This section discusses concepts defined by the Flask architecture that are important to configuring the SELinux policy. It then discusses definitions specified by the Flask architecture that are used by both the policy enforcing code and by the policy configuration.

Flask Concepts

Every subject (process) and object (e.g. file, socket, IPC object, etc) in the system is assigned a collection of security attributes, known as a security context. A security context contains all of the security attributes associated with a particular subject or object that are relevant to the security policy. The content and format of a security context depends on the particular security model, so a security context is only interpreted by the security server. In order to better encapsulate security contexts and to provide greater efficiency, the policy enforcement code of SELinux typically handles security identifiers (SIDs) rather than security contexts. A SID is an integer that is mapped by the security server to a security context at runtime. SIDs are nonpersistent and local identifiers, and must be translated to security contexts for labeling persistent objects such as files or for labeled networking. A small set of SID values are reserved for system initialization or predefined objects; these SID values are referred to as initial SIDs. Kernel SIDs are not exported to userspace; the kernel only returns security contexts to userspace. However, userspace policy enforcers may have their own SID mappings maintained by the userspace AVC that is included in libselinux.

When a security decision is required, the policy enforcement code passes a pair of SIDs (typically the SID of a subject and the SID of an object, but sometimes a pair of subject SIDs or a pair of object SIDs), and an object security class to the security server. The object security class indicates the kind of object, e.g. a process, a regular file, a directory, a TCP socket, etc. The security server looks up the security contexts for the SIDs. It then bases its decision on the attributes within the security contexts and the object security class. The security server provides two major kinds of security decisions to the policy enforcement code: labeling decisions and access decisions.

Labeling decisions, also referred to as transition decisions, specify the default security attributes to use for a new subject or a new object. A process transition decision is requested when a program is executed based on the current SID of the process and the SID of the program. An object transition decision is requested when a new object is created based on the SID of the creating process and the SID of a related object, e.g. the parent directory for file creations. These default labeling decisions can be overridden by security-aware applications using the SELinux API. In either case, the use of the new label must be approved by an access decision or the operation will fail.

The policy enforcement code is responsible for binding the labels to subjects and objects in the system. For transient objects such as processes and sockets, a SID can be associated with the corresponding kernel object. However, persistent files and directories require additional support to provide persistent labeling. Security contexts are stored persistently for files and directories using extended attributes, specifically the security.selinux attribute.

When converting an existing system to using SELinux, the extended attribute values for all files are typically initialized by a utility called setfiles from a file contexts configuration that specifies security contexts for files based on pathname regular expressions. If the Linux distribution already includes SELinux support, then the extended attributes will typically be set at install time by the corresponding package manager for the distribution, which may also be enhanced to use the file contexts configuration to determine the appropriate security context. Subsequently, the mapping is maintained dynamically by the policy enforcing code to reflect create, delete, and relabel operations.

The file contexts configuration is logically separate from the policy configuration. The file contexts configuration is not part of the kernel policy and is only used by userspace programs when initializing or resetting the extended attributes to their install-time values. The extended attribute values are then used at runtime by the policy enforcing code. The policy configuration is used by the security server and is needed to obtain security decisions. The policy configuration specifies security decisions based entirely on security attributes, whereas the file contexts configuration specifies security contexts for files based on pathnames. Using the pathname is only suitable for initial installation of the file; subsequently, the security attributes of the file should be tracked during runtime based on policy.

Access decisions specify whether or not a permission is granted for a given pair of SIDs and class. Each object class has a set of associated permissions defined to control operations on objects with that class. These permission sets are represented by a bitmap called an access vector. When an access decision is requested, the security server returns an allowed access vector containing the decisions for all of the permissions defined for the object class. These access vectors are cached by a component of the Flask architecture called the Access Vector Cache (AVC) for subsequent use by the policy enforcement code. The AVC component provides an interface to the security server to support cache management for policy changes.

In addition to providing an allowed access vector, the security server provides two access vectors related to auditing. An auditallow decision indicates whether a permission check should be audited when it is granted. For example, if a permission is associated with a highly sensitive operation, it may be desirable to audit every use of that operation. An auditdeny decision indicates whether a permission check should be audited when it is denied.

Flask Definitions

A small set of configuration files are shared between the SELinux kernel module and the example policy configuration. These files define the Flask security classes, initial SIDs, and access vector permissions. This information is not specific to any particular security model, and should rarely change. Changes to these files require recompilation of the module and policy, and will typically require updates to the module and policy to use the new values. These files do not need to be modified to configure the security model implemented by the example security server.

The meaning of the security classes and access vector permissions in the original SELinux implementation was described in [LoscoccoNSATR2001] and [LoscoccoFreenix2001]. Changes made for the LSM-based SELinux implementation are described in [SmalleyModuleTR2001].

The source for these files is located in the policy/flask subdirectory of the policy sources. These files are installed into /etc/selinux/(targeted|strict)/src/policy/flask and are used when the policy configuration is compiled. The Flask configuration files are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Architecture Configuration Files

FilenameDescription
security_classesDeclares the security classes.
initial_sidsDeclares initial SIDs.
access_vectorsDefines the access vector permissions for each class.