Reasoning compositionally about security

Prof. Andrew Myers from Cornell visited our department at UB couple weeks ago, and gave a talk. I had taken some notes during the talk, and figured I should organize them a little and post here.

I was delighted to see Andrew had a blog. I just wish he posted more frequently. I especially liked the upgoer-five-editor composed "What I do" post, the "GashlyCode-Tinies" post, and the "Deserialization considered harmful" posts.

I like it when researchers and professors blog. Blogging gives us a different venue with an informal format to present our opinions. This enables us to provide intuitive and simpler explanations, opine open-endedly without needing to provide proof/validation, and even show our humorous and human-sides. Blogging is ideal for professing, I think.

Anyways back to Andrew's talk. The talk was about a couple recent papers
"Secure Information Flow Verification with Mutable Dependent Types" and "Verification of a practical hardware security architecture through static information flow analysis"

Compositional security enforcement

An idea that worked for compositional security enforcement in software is to  "control the flow of information throughout a computing system". The secret flow shouldn't get into public flow and leak outside. In other words, like in Ghostbusters, you must not let the secret and public information streams cross inside a component. The components that possess this property compose and by composing them together you get end-to-end security in your system. (I am not in the security field, but I had heard about this idea applied to achieve Android system security.)

Andrew had worked on this idea for software systems, and recently wondered if we can use this idea also for achieving hardware security. This is because even if you have security at the software level, if the hardware level leaks, you didn't achieve anything. And there were very interesting exploits in recent years using side-channel attacks and timing attacks to leak information from the hardware (i.e., data cache, instruction cache, computation unit, memory controller).

Secure HDLs

The idea is to develop a secure hardware description language (HDL) that uses the information flow type ideas described above to ensure that hardware is secure at design time. Chip design already uses Verilog as an HDL and synthesize chips from Verilog programs. (Chip design is still a relatively constrained domain that synthesis from high-level code is possible.) So Andrew's team add security annotations to Verilog to provide SecVerilog.

SecVerilog is essentially Verilog plus some dependent security labels. The idea is to design a chip system that doesn't leak, by modeling/verifying it in Secverilog. The security model is that the attacker sees contents of public hardware state (high/low) at each clock tick.

Using SecVerilog Andrew's team produced a formally verified MIPS processor. The static analysis overhead of SecVerilog was extremely low: it was 2 seconds for the complete MIPS processor.


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