NSA gets Linux secure
From codebreaker to codemaker
Security is one of the highest profile issues in IT and there has been constant baiting between the Microsoft and Linux camps over who has the more secure operating system. At the start of the year we saw Bill Gates wake up to the fact that security is a good thing and now there is news that the US National Security Agency has been working on a security module that plugs straight into a Linux distribution.
Security-Enhanced Linux (SELinux) is a prototype aimed at enhancing the basic features of the operating system with new features such as mandatory access control. Most operating systems use discretionary access controls, details that are provided voluntarily by the user such as user id and password, whereas mandatory access control uses information outside the users reach, such as IP address, to validate access.
It may seem odd that the National Security Agency has developed a security module. In the X-Files-like world of Government agencies, the National Security Agency is often associated with code breaking, but the other aspect of the role is code making, hence the interest in a secure Linux.
These new features may encourage other US government agencies to get in on the open source bandwagon. Although Linux and other open source solutions are seeing a gradual increases in popularity in the UK and Europe, Stateside there is still a reluctance to make the move. Whist it is predicted that use of the open source operating system could save the US Government $1 billion a year in license fees alone, many departments still appear to favour products by Microsoft, Oracle et al.
So far, the barriers to adoption seem to be that it is not on the list of approved operating systems, and it lacks the fully-fledged enterprise class reputation of its competitors. But the strangle hold of proprietary software on the government agencies is starting to break, as both IBM and HP have recently sold large Linux based systems into several federal agencies.
The heightened interest in security also goes some way to explaining the reluctance, but with the development of SELinux this concern should be eased and the door should now be ajar for more Linux based systems to get into government offices. As far as gaining official approval is concerned, that comes down to the National Security Agency, so the fact that they have instigated the development of SELinux should mean this approval will be far easier to gain.
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