6.5. MAC Framework Kernel Architecture

The TrustedBSD MAC Framework permits kernel modules to extend the operating system security policy, as well as providing infrastructure functionality required by many access control modules. If multiple policies are simultaneously loaded, the MAC Framework will usefully (for some definition of useful) compose the results of the policies.

6.5.1. Kernel Elements

The MAC Framework contains a number of kernel elements:

  • Framework management interfaces

  • Concurrency and synchronization primitives.

  • Policy registration

  • Extensible security label for kernel objects

  • Policy entry point composition operators

  • Label management primitives

  • Entry point API invoked by kernel services

  • Entry point API to policy modules

  • Entry points implementations (policy life cycle, object life cycle/label management, access control checks).

  • Policy-agnostic label-management system calls

  • mac_syscall() multiplex system call

  • Various security policies implemented as MAC policy modules

6.5.2. Framework Management Interfaces

The TrustedBSD MAC Framework may be directly managed using sysctl's, loader tunables, and system calls.

In most cases, sysctl's and loader tunables of the same name modify the same parameters, and control behavior such as enforcement of protections relating to various kernel subsystems. In addition, if MAC debugging support is compiled into the kernel, several counters will be maintained tracking label allocation. It is generally advisable that per-subsystem enforcement controls not be used to control policy behavior in production environments, as they broadly impact the operation of all active policies. Instead, per-policy controls should be preferred, as they provide greater granularity and greater operational consistency for policy modules.

Loading and unloading of policy modules is performed using the system module management system calls and other system interfaces, including boot loader variables; policy modules will have the opportunity to influence load and unload events, including preventing undesired unloading of the policy.

6.5.3. Policy List Concurrency and Synchronization

As the set of active policies may change at run-time, and the invocation of entry points is non-atomic, synchronization is required to prevent loading or unloading of policies while an entry point invocation is in progress, freezing the set of active policies for the duration. This is accomplished by means of a framework busy count: whenever an entry point is entered, the busy count is incremented; whenever it is exited, the busy count is decremented. While the busy count is elevated, policy list changes are not permitted, and threads attempting to modify the policy list will sleep until the list is not busy. The busy count is protected by a mutex, and a condition variable is used to wake up sleepers waiting on policy list modifications. One side effect of this synchronization model is that recursion into the MAC Framework from within a policy module is permitted, although not generally used.

Various optimizations are used to reduce the overhead of the busy count, including avoiding the full cost of incrementing and decrementing if the list is empty or contains only static entries (policies that are loaded before the system starts, and cannot be unloaded). A compile-time option is also provided which prevents any change in the set of loaded policies at run-time, which eliminates the mutex locking costs associated with supporting dynamically loaded and unloaded policies as synchronization is no longer required.

As the MAC Framework is not permitted to block in some entry points, a normal sleep lock cannot be used; as a result, it is possible for the load or unload attempt to block for a substantial period of time waiting for the framework to become idle.

6.5.4. Label Synchronization

As kernel objects of interest may generally be accessed from more than one thread at a time, and simultaneous entry of more than one thread into the MAC Framework is permitted, security attribute storage maintained by the MAC Framework is carefully synchronized. In general, existing kernel synchronization on kernel object data is used to protect MAC Framework security labels on the object: for example, MAC labels on sockets are protected using the existing socket mutex. Likewise, semantics for concurrent access are generally identical to those of the container objects: for credentials, copy-on-write semantics are maintained for label contents as with the remainder of the credential structure. The MAC Framework asserts necessary locks on objects when invoked with an object reference. Policy authors must be aware of these synchronization semantics, as they will sometimes limit the types of accesses permitted on labels: for example, when a read-only reference to a credential is passed to a policy via an entry point, only read operations are permitted on the label state attached to the credential.

6.5.5. Policy Synchronization and Concurrency

Policy modules must be written to assume that many kernel threads may simultaneously enter one more policy entry points due to the parallel and preemptive nature of the FreeBSD kernel. If the policy module makes use of mutable state, this may require the use of synchronization primitives within the policy to prevent inconsistent views on that state resulting in incorrect operation of the policy. Policies will generally be able to make use of existing FreeBSD synchronization primitives for this purpose, including mutexes, sleep locks, condition variables, and counting semaphores. However, policies should be written to employ these primitives carefully, respecting existing kernel lock orders, and recognizing that some entry points are not permitted to sleep, limiting the use of primitives in those entry points to mutexes and wakeup operations.

When policy modules call out to other kernel subsystems, they will generally need to release any in-policy locks in order to avoid violating the kernel lock order or risking lock recursion. This will maintain policy locks as leaf locks in the global lock order, helping to avoid deadlock.

6.5.6. Policy Registration

The MAC Framework maintains two lists of active policies: a static list, and a dynamic list. The lists differ only with regards to their locking semantics: an elevated reference count is not required to make use of the static list. When kernel modules containing MAC Framework policies are loaded, the policy module will use SYSINIT to invoke a registration function; when a policy module is unloaded, SYSINIT will likewise invoke a de-registration function. Registration may fail if a policy module is loaded more than once, if insufficient resources are available for the registration (for example, the policy might require labeling and insufficient labeling state might be available), or other policy prerequisites might not be met (some policies may only be loaded prior to boot). Likewise, de-registration may fail if a policy is flagged as not unloadable.

6.5.7. Entry Points

Kernel services interact with the MAC Framework in two ways: they invoke a series of APIs to notify the framework of relevant events, and they provide a policy-agnostic label structure pointer in security-relevant objects. The label pointer is maintained by the MAC Framework via label management entry points, and permits the Framework to offer a labeling service to policy modules through relatively non-invasive changes to the kernel subsystem maintaining the object. For example, label pointers have been added to processes, process credentials, sockets, pipes, vnodes, Mbufs, network interfaces, IP reassembly queues, and a variety of other security-relevant structures. Kernel services also invoke the MAC Framework when they perform important security decisions, permitting policy modules to augment those decisions based on their own criteria (possibly including data stored in security labels). Most of these security critical decisions will be explicit access control checks; however, some affect more general decision functions such as packet matching for sockets and label transition at program execution.

6.5.8. Policy Composition

When more than one policy module is loaded into the kernel at a time, the results of the policy modules will be composed by the framework using a composition operator. This operator is currently hard-coded, and requires that all active policies must approve a request for it to return success. As policies may return a variety of error conditions (success, access denied, object does not exist, ...), a precedence operator selects the resulting error from the set of errors returned by policies. In general, errors indicating that an object does not exist will be preferred to errors indicating that access to an object is denied. While it is not guaranteed that the resulting composition will be useful or secure, we have found that it is for many useful selections of policies. For example, traditional trusted systems often ship with two or more policies using a similar composition.

6.5.9. Labeling Support

As many interesting access control extensions rely on security labels on objects, the MAC Framework provides a set of policy-agnostic label management system calls covering a variety of user-exposed objects. Common label types include partition identifiers, sensitivity labels, integrity labels, compartments, domains, roles, and types. By policy agnostic, we mean that policy modules are able to completely define the semantics of meta-data associated with an object. Policy modules participate in the internalization and externalization of string-based labels provides by user applications, and can expose multiple label elements to applications if desired.

In-memory labels are stored in slab-allocated struct label, which consists of a fixed-length array of unions, each holding a void * pointer and a long. Policies registering for label storage will be assigned a "slot" identifier, which may be used to dereference the label storage. The semantics of the storage are left entirely up to the policy module: modules are provided with a variety of entry points associated with the kernel object life cycle, including initialization, association/creation, and destruction. Using these interfaces, it is possible to implement reference counting and other storage models. Direct access to the object structure is generally not required by policy modules to retrieve a label, as the MAC Framework generally passes both a pointer to the object and a direct pointer to the object's label into entry points. The primary exception to this rule is the process credential, which must be manually dereferenced to access the credential label. This may change in future revisions of the MAC Framework.

Initialization entry points frequently include a sleeping disposition flag indicating whether or not an initialization is permitted to sleep; if sleeping is not permitted, a failure may be returned to cancel allocation of the label (and hence object). This may occur, for example, in the network stack during interrupt handling, where sleeping is not permitted, or while the caller holds a mutex. Due to the performance cost of maintaining labels on in-flight network packets (Mbufs), policies must specifically declare a requirement that Mbuf labels be allocated. Dynamically loaded policies making use of labels must be able to handle the case where their init function has not been called on an object, as objects may already exist when the policy is loaded. The MAC Framework guarantees that uninitialized label slots will hold a 0 or NULL value, which policies may use to detect uninitialized values. However, as allocation of Mbuf labels is conditional, policies must also be able to handle a NULL label pointer for Mbufs if they have been loaded dynamically.

In the case of file system labels, special support is provided for the persistent storage of security labels in extended attributes. Where available, extended attribute transactions are used to permit consistent compound updates of security labels on vnodes--currently this support is present only in the UFS2 file system. Policy authors may choose to implement multilabel file system object labels using one (or more) extended attributes. For efficiency reasons, the vnode label (v_label) is a cache of any on-disk label; policies are able to load values into the cache when the vnode is instantiated, and update the cache as needed. As a result, the extended attribute need not be directly accessed with every access control check.


Currently, if a labeled policy permits dynamic unloading, its state slot cannot be reclaimed, which places a strict (and relatively low) bound on the number of unload-reload operations for labeled policies.

6.5.10. System Calls

The MAC Framework implements a number of system calls: most of these calls support the policy-agnostic label retrieval and manipulation APIs exposed to user applications.

The label management calls accept a label description structure, struct mac, which contains a series of MAC label elements. Each element contains a character string name, and character string value. Each policy will be given the chance to claim a particular element name, permitting policies to expose multiple independent elements if desired. Policy modules perform the internalization and externalization between kernel labels and user-provided labels via entry points, permitting a variety of semantics. Label management system calls are generally wrapped by user library functions to perform memory allocation and error handling, simplifying user applications that must manage labels.

The following MAC-related system calls are present in the FreeBSD kernel:

  • mac_get_proc() may be used to retrieve the label of the current process.

  • mac_set_proc() may be used to request a change in the label of the current process.

  • mac_get_fd() may be used to retrieve the label of an object (file, socket, pipe, ...) referenced by a file descriptor.

  • mac_get_file() may be used to retrieve the label of an object referenced by a file system path.

  • mac_set_fd() may be used to request a change in the label of an object (file, socket, pipe, ...) referenced by a file descriptor.

  • mac_set_file() may be used to request a change in the label of an object referenced by a file system path.

  • mac_syscall() permits policy modules to create new system calls without modifying the system call table; it accepts a target policy name, operation number, and opaque argument for use by the policy.

  • mac_get_pid() may be used to request the label of another process by process id.

  • mac_get_link() is identical to mac_get_file(), only it will not follow a symbolic link if it is the final entry in the path, so may be used to retrieve the label on a symlink.

  • mac_set_link() is identical to mac_set_file(), only it will not follow a symbolic link if it is the final entry in a path, so may be used to manipulate the label on a symlink.

  • mac_execve() is identical to the execve() system call, only it also accepts a requested label to set the process label to when beginning execution of a new program. This change in label on execution is referred to as a "transition".

  • mac_get_peer(), actually implemented via a socket option, retrieves the label of a remote peer on a socket, if available.

In addition to these system calls, the SIOCSIGMAC and SIOCSIFMAC network interface ioctls permit the labels on network interfaces to be retrieved and set.

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