Model Driven Security Policy Automation

On this blog, ObjectSecurity co-founder and CEO Ulrich Lang discusses security policy automation and model-driven security. The aim of this blog is to advocate advance the state of the art in this area through exchange of ideas. - -

Monday 1 August 2011

Analysis Series: NISTIR 7628 Smart Grid Security Recommendations

In this “analysis series” blog post, I will focus on US NIST’s 537-page "Guidelines for SmartGrid Cyber Security" (NIST IR 7628). Here are some interesting recommended controls I have analyzed:
  1. Least privilege access control: The recommended control “Least Privilege” (NIST IR 7628 - SG.AC-7) requires that “the organization assigns the most restrictive set of rights and privileges or access needed by users for the performance of specified tasks”, and that “the organization configures the smart grid information system to enforce the most restrictive set of rights and privileges or access needed by users”. In other words, a caller should only be granted access to a resource if that caller has a need to do so in the specific context, for example a particular step in a business process, or a particular system situation such as emergency level.
  2. Information flow enforcement: The recommended control “Information Flow Enforcement” (NIST IR 7628 - SG.AC-5) requires that the smart grid information system enforces assigned authorizations for controlling the flow of information within the smart grid information system and between interconnected smart grid information systems in accordance with applicable policy. Information flow control regulates where information is allowed to travel within a smart grid information system and between smart grid information systems. As example implementations, the document mentions boundary protection devices that restrict smart grid information system services or provide a packet-filtering capability. This section of the document also offers a number of supplemental considerations. Particularly interesting for the discussion in this paper, the guidance recommends “dynamic information flow control allowing or disallowing information flows based on changing conditions or operational considerations”.
  3. Incident monitoring, incident reporting, and auditing: Related to achieving visibility, numerous recommendations for incident monitoring, incident reporting, and auditing are spread throughout the NIST IR 7628 document. For example:  “smart grid Information System Monitoring Tools and Techniques” (SG.SI-4) requires that “the organization monitors events … to detect attacks, unauthorized activities or conditions, and non-malicious errors” based on the organization’s “monitoring objectives and the capability of the smart grid information system to support such activities”. The supplemental guidance states that this can be achieved through a variety of tools and techniques (e.g., intrusion detection systems, intrusion prevention systems, malicious code protection software, log monitoring software, network monitoring software, and network forensic analysis tools), and can include real-time alerting. “Incident Monitoring” (SG.IR-6) requires that “the organization tracks and documents … security incidents”, maybe using “automated mechanisms to assist in the tracking of security incidents and in the collection and analysis of incident information”. “Incident Reporting” (SG.IR-7) requires incident reporting procedures about what is an incident, granularity of incident information, who receives it etc., again potentially employing “automated mechanisms to assist in the reporting of security incidents”. “Auditable Events” (SG.AU-2): to identify events that need to be auditable as significant and relevant, requires the development and review of a list of auditable events on an organization-defined frequency, including execution of privileged functions. “Audit Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting” (SG.AU-6) requires audit record reviews and analyses to find and report inappropriate or unusual activity, potentially employing automated, centralized analysis tools. “Audit Reduction and Report Generation” (SG.AU-7) supports near real-time analysis and after-the-fact investigations of security incidents, e.g. by automatically processing audit records for events of interest based on selectable event criteria. “Audit Generation” (SG.AU-15) recommends audit record generation capability, potentially from multiple components into a system-wide audit trail that is time-correlated.
All this makes sense, but is easier to write about than to actually implement, esp. at the scale of a smart grid. Let’s discuss each on turn to see how model-driven security policy automation can help implement these recommendations effectively:
  1. Least privilege access control: What this specifically means is that a dynamic access control “whitelist” (i.e. stating what is allowed, vs. “blacklists” that state what is not allowed) needs to be available that enforces the that policy requirement. Static access control models such as identity-based access control (IBAC) or role-based access control (RBAC) are not sufficient access mechanisms because they do not capture such context in the policy. As a result, virtually all IBAC/RBAC implementations, including traditional Identity and Access Management (IAM) technologies, are insufficient on their own. Attribute-based access control (ABAC), as for example standardized in XACML, help add this missing context and other additional expressions to the policy. The flipside of ABAC is that those fine-grained contextual authorization policies are extremely difficult, time-consuming, and error-prone for human administrators to manually author and maintain. Model-driven security policy automation as implemented in OpenPMF can solve the unmanageability problem of ABAC and ZBAC.
  2. Information flow enforcement: As already mentioned above, IBAC and RBAC are insufficient on their own, and due to the inherent changing (“agile”) nature of today’s interconnected IT landscapes (“system of systems”), ABAC policies would need to be constantly manually updated to be correct after “system of systems” changes, resulting in a policy management nightmare. There are a number of other problems with ABAC, e.g. challenges around authorization delegation across service chains and impersonation, which can be solved using authorization-based access control (ZBAC), which uses authorization tokens and federated authorization token servers. Model-driven security policy automation as implemented in OpenPMF can solve the unmanageability problem of ABAC and ZBAC.
  3. Incident monitoring, incident reporting, and auditing: In the context of the fine-grained contextual authorization mentioned earlier, incident monitoring, reporting, and audit are intrinsically intertwined with authorization. Monitoring, reporting, and audit tools will need to know the specific authorization policies in order to decide whether behaviour is in fact suspicious or not. This differs dramatically from traditional monitoring approaches which mainly monitor for generic vulnerabilities (i.e. the same vulnerabilities occur for a particular technology, rather than for a particular business) and thus do not need to know any specifics about the organization’s business processes in order to flag an incident. I call control and visibility for generic vulnerabilities “security hygiene” to distinguish them from organization-specific policy enforcement and monitoring. Model-driven security incident monitoring and analysis, as implemented in OpenPMF, can solve the policy-driven monitoring challenge for authorization management compliance.
I hope you enjoyed this analysis, comments are of course always appreciated.


Dr. Ulrich Lang, CEO, ObjectSecurity said...

There is also a video interview about this topic at

Amarjeet Prasad said...

Your impressive and unique content amazed me. You have written perfect piece.
HIPAA compliance

Dr. Ulrich Lang, CEO, ObjectSecurity said...

Thank you, glad you found it helpful! In fact we will be presenting a scientific paper about this at the ISSE 2011 conference in a couple of days.