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The ultra-secretive US spy agency, the National Security Agency (NSA), has released a prototype for an ultra-secure version of the Linux operating system.

Developed in co-operation with industry research partners, the prototype includes enhancements to Linux which provide stronger protection against the bypassing of application security mechanisms and greater limits on the damage that can be caused by malicious or flawed applications.

The technology draws heavily on Secure Computing's Type Enforcement framework which protects applications and network services, by segmenting them into domains. This type enforcement framework, together with role-based access control components, define security policy configuration files.

These configuration files in turn are used to dictate whether or not the action that an operator is requesting should be allowed or not - in other words, they add mandatory access controls that can confine the actions of any process, including a superuser process.

Researchers at the NSA implemented the security architecture in the major subsystems of the Linux kernel with some refinements provided by Network Associates, Secure Computing and Mitre. Networks Associates also assisted in developing application security policies and enhanced utilities for the system.

The prototype release includes a set of sample security policy configuration files designed to meet common, general-purpose security goals.

With uncharacteristic openness, the NSA admits "since this system is a prototype, there is still much work to be done to develop a complete security solution."

The prototype was developed using the 2.2.12 kernel, and has not being updated with the latest stable kernel release. So far the system supports only the x86 architecture and has only been tested on the Red Hat 6.1 distribution.

NSA is presenting this system under the terms of the GNU General Public License with the goal of working with the Linux community to refine these enhancements for eventual inclusion into Linux.

While the work is likely increase the confidence of government and business users in the security of Linux, it'll be hard to avoid a clash of cultures between the free-wheeling, openness of the Linux community and the obsessive secrecy of spooks.

Anyone interested in the system or getting more information about it, should visit the project web site here. This site contains the source to the system as well as some technical documentation about it. ®

Related stories:
NSA coughs up secret TEMPEST specs
NSA runs best fab in world
Linux 2.4 kernel released
Hackers, Windows NT and the FBI

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

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