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linux-kernel: Re: AppArmor FAQ

Re: AppArmor FAQ

From: James Morris <jmorris_at_nospam>
Date: Tue Apr 17 2007 - 00:20:52 GMT
To: John Johansen <>

On Mon, 16 Apr 2007, John Johansen wrote:

> Label-based security (exemplified by SELinux, and its predecessors in
> MLS systems) attaches security policy to the data. As the data flows
> through the system, the label sticks to the data, and so security
> policy with respect to this data stays intact. This is a good approach
> for ensuring secrecy, the kind of problem that intelligence agencies have.

Labels are also a good approach for ensuring integrity, which is one of the most fundamental aspects of the security model implemented by SELinux.

Some may infer otherwise from your document.

> Pathname-based security (exemplified in AppArmor, and its predecessor
> Janus and other systems like
> Systrace ) attach security
> policy to the name of the data.
> Controlling access to filenames is important because applications
> primarily use those names to access the files behind them, and they
> depend on getting to the right files. For example, login(1) expects
> /etc/passwd to resolve to a valid list of user accounts.

And it should, but alas may instead find otherwise due to namespace manipulation, object aliasing (e.g. symlinks), application error, configuration error, corrupted files, corrupted filesystems, misbehavior due to malware infection or various forms user error.

A pathname tells you nothing reliable about the security properties of the object its pointing to. It is simply a mechanism for locating and referring to an object.

> In the traditional UNIX model, files do have names but not labels, and
> applications only operate in terms of those names.

Just to be clear (as the above conflates two distinct notions): applications under SELinux still use pathnames for locating and referring to files.

SELinux security is enforced within the kernel, and an application which does not have permission to access an object will simply receive an error using the standard Unix mechanisms already used for DAC. For example, a write(2) might fail with an EACCES error code.

The pathname used by an application to access an object has _nothing_ to do with the security attributes of the object.

Traditional Unix security in fact does not primarily depend on pathnames, but on DAC ownership and permission attributes stored in the file's inode.

DAC is of course a form of labeled security.

Imagine if you were re-inventing Unix and decided to implement pathname security for DAC instead of inode labeling. What you would have is a more generalized version of apparmor, with the DAC attributes of pathnames for the entire filesystem stored in a text database with an in-kernel regex engine performing path reconstruction and pattern matching on every file access. Sound like a good idea? I hope not.

How about an analogy: think of kernel objects which are protected by locks. Do you lock the path to the object or do you lock the object itself?

> Pathname-based security puts more emphasis on the integrity of the
> system, making secrecy the secondary goal that follows.

This assertion is being made without any supporting evidence or rationale.

If you're comparing pathname vs. label security, then it is clear that direct object labeling allows the security attributes of the system to be specified completely and unambiguously, whereas integrity enforced via pathnames alone requires several constraints to be applied to the goals of the policy. So, it seems to me that the opposite of what you say is more correct, although it is a fairly oblique argument to start with.

More significant to note is that Type Enforcement was designed specifically to address integrity requirements, in response to the limitations of the early MLS models which were focused on confidentiality.


"A Practical Alternative to Hierarchical Integrity Policies" Boebert & Kain, Proceedings of the Eighth National Computer Security Conference, 1985.

"Meeting Critical Security Objectives with Security-Enhanced Linux"

Or pretty much any paper on the design of SELinux or Flask.

Integrity control is a foundational aspect of TE, Flask and SELinux.

I've never understood why AppArmor presentations tend to so bizarrely suggest the opposite.

> Caveat: Both label-based security and pathname-based security can
> provide both secrecy and integrity protection, the above discussion is
> only about which model makes it easier to provide which kind of security.

I don't see how you've established anything in this regard.

> We acknowledge that not all objects on a UNIX system are paths, and we
> agree that there is value in also protecting non-path resources.
> Contrary to popular belief, AppArmor is *not* "Pathnames R Us", but
> rather "Use native abstractions to mediate stuff": when you mediate
> something, you should use the native syntax that users normally use to
> access the object. This follows the UNIX philosophy of "least surprise"
> so that users can understand the specification. Pathnames are the
> natural notation for users to understand what file access rights are
> being granted in the policy, and so AppArmor uses shell syntax for fully
> qualified pathnames, including shell syntax wildcards.

But, traditional DAC security uses direct labeling of files, just like SELinux. It does not use a separate pathname security file.

So, the traditionalist argument doesn't work here.

And you can still use pathnames under SELinux to locate an object to label, just as you do with DAC. You just don't put a security label on the path itself.

> Similarly, AppArmor grants access to POSIX.1e capabilities by name, the
> name of the capability. In future work where AppArmor will add network
> access control, the notation will resemble IPTables firewall rules. This
> is an important part of what makes AppArmor usable: always using the
> native abstraction for mediating access.

Did you know that SELinux has had iptables-based network controls for nearly a year?


> We also acknowledge that pathname based access control requires a way to
> perform pathname matching in the kernel, and this comes at a cost higher
> than comparing object labels -- which assumes that all objects in the
> system already have the appropriate labels.
> However, those concerned with performance should note that AppArmor
> overhead is already quite low (single-digit percent slowdown). Security
> is rarely performance-neutral, and AppArmor, and SELinux, are no
> exception. However, that overhead is small, and can be selectively
> avoided by not applying AppArmor to performance-sensitive programs.

Keep in mind that if comparing AppArmor and SELinux performance, that SELinux is doing a lot more: it's mediating all security-relevant accesses being made by the system, not just file accesses.

It would be interesting to try and set up an apples-to-apples test.

> It is also easy to overlook the fact that putting all those labels in
> place is a pretty expensive operation as well, particularly considering
> large file systems. So by providing string matching in the kernel,
> AppArmor trades run-time performance to grant reduced administrative work.

The upfront labeling cost of labeled MAC is not characteristically different to that of traditional DAC labeling. Ideally, an SELinux system is installed from scratch with its security labels as well as DAC attributes, with the labeling behavior for newly created objects being controlled from a well defined policy. You probably want to avoid getting into the situation of needing a TE relabel on a production system in any case.

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