Granma's Rules Of POLA

How difficult is it to operate a capability secure desktop? As demonstrated by CapDesk, all the ordinary techniques, from file dialog boxes to drag/drop metaphors, work pretty much the same as under Windows/KDE/Mac. There are no passwords or certificates or funny little security dialog boxes. So a capability secure desktop is no more difficult to operate than any other desktop.

Ah...but how difficult is it to operate a capability secure desktop securely? Can real people really follow the rules that will protect them from Melissa viruses and Sub7Server Trojan horses? Because even with capabilities, despite the absence of passwords and certificates, we are still depending on normal human beings to make authority-granting decisions. This appears most clearly during the installation of a new application, at which time the application can be endowed with default authority (so a Web browser, for example, would sensibly ask for, and often sensible receive, http-protocol read/write authority).

Anyone who has ever installed a firewall or set up a Unix access control list can be forgiven for being skeptical that authority-granting can be made easy enough for the normal person. Yet capabilities implementing the Principle of Least Authority represent a paradigm shift from IPCHAINS as great as the shift that took us from the TECO line editor to MacWrite. No real human being could use TECO; five year old children can use MacWrite.

Herewith, then, are Granma's Rules Of POLA. There are 6 of them. They are simple and easy to follow for anyone who has seen a CapDesk in operation. They do not fulfill every subtle desire one might have for secure operations in the deepest heart of the NSA. And perhaps the list is not complete--the list has not had the important experience of being attacked by a thousand crackers yet.. But these rules fulfill Granma's needs, allow her to do everything she wants to do without any annoyance from her security system, and the rules have at least passed the scrutiny of the e-lang capability security community reasonably unscathed. You can read the entire e-lang thread about these rules in the pipermail archive. To give the context in which these rules were devised, which explains the threats against which these rules are successful, part of the original email about these rules is excerpted below.

Will every person on earth follow every one of these rules perfectly every day? Of course not. But there is a good chance that you, personally, can follow these rules very consistently. So at least you personally will be safe. And even if someone, somewhere, lets a virus activate on their system, the chances that one of the people to whom that future Love Bug mails itself will allow themselves to become infected as well is small. Epidemiologically, rates of transmission would fall low enough that new viruses get no traction and cannot spread. At least, that is our belief. Take a look at the rules, and judge for yourself.

Granma's Rules:

  1. If an application, during installation, proposes for itself a name or an icon that looks a lot like the name or the icon of something else, give it a new name and new icon.
  2. If an application asks for a bunch of different authorities, just say no.
  3. If an application asks for read or edit authority on anything outside the Desktop folder, just say no.
  4. If an applicatin asks for edit authority on a bunch of stuff, just say no.
  5. If an application asks for wide-ranging access to the Web, rather than access to one or two specific sites,, only say yes if you plan to use the application as a Web browser.
  6. If an application asks for read authority on a bunch of stuff, and also asks for a connection to the Web, just say no.

Notes: Rule 3 is only required by a CapDesk-style implementation of a capability secure desktop. A totally full-powered design, based on a capability secure OS in addition to a capability secure language, would not need this rule. Rule 4 was added in the course of the e-lang discussion reviewing the original list; the rest of the list is essentially the same as the original. Rule 6 is actually not needed to meet Granma's security goals (since she has no confidential data she is worried about having stolen, as described below), but is an easy enough rule to follow, we included it anyway.

Excerpt from Original Email, Granma's Rules Of POLA

As I have toured the countryside in the last month giving presentation about the capability secure desktop (see the screenshots under th Technology section at http://www.combex.com, they are pretty cool), there's a particular point I keep making that needs to be backfilled with real data. The particular point is, "The typical home user only has to follow 6 or 7 simple rules to be safe from viruses and troja horses." It would really be good to know what those rules are :-)

Herewith, then, is a proposed list of Granma's Rules of POLA. The rules are at the bottom of this email; first we must set the stage by describing the threat model which Granma faces, and her interests in the face of the threat.

Granma does not have security needs like a guy working in a compartment at the NSA. She really doesn't have any terribly confidential information: if someone breaks in and steals all the email she has exchanged with her adorable 13-year-old grandson Bobbie, it will not make for good blackmail material, and doesn't enable insider trading. Everyone who knows her thinks she is a cool octogenarian; no one is explicitly targeting her, unique in all the world, for a customized attack.

All Granma wants to do with her computer is browse the web for new cookie recipes, send email to her grandson, create and print clever Valentine's Day cards of her own devising, and play Nancy Drew Virtual Reality Team with her granddaughter. This requires that she be able to download and try card-creation applications (drawing packages, word processors, etc.) and the same for mystery games. She needs to not fear opening attachments sent with her grandson's name on it...she has heard, though she doesn't exactly understand how, people can send her email with Bobbie's name on it but with malicious contents.

She is terrified of having her computer taken over by some 13 year old who is not as adorable as Bobbie, and having her computer used for nefarious purposes (she doesn't know that the FBI might come knockin' on her door some day if someone used her computer in a DDOS attack, but if she did, she would recognize that that is a reason why bad kids shouldn't be allowed to control her machine).

Granma is also terrified of someone breaking in and stealing her money. She uses the computer to tell the Social Security Admin where to deposit her checks, and she has been thinking about getting a digital cash account using Hansa Dollars or e-gold rather than those blasted credit cards, but she won't put real money on her computer until she thinks it would be safer to have money on her computer than it would be to throw the money into the intersection of 5th and Vine.

Bobbie, her adorable grandson, not only loves Granma's choco-chip cookies, but is also wanted in 15 states by the FBI for computer cracking. He knows just how dangerous it is out there, and wants to make sure Granma can't be attacked by some creep with no more ethics or scruples than...uh...himself. When he sees CapDesk as an alternative, he immediately loads up his own computer and Granma's computer so that they can both be safe.

Here are the rules he gives Granma as he completes installation, and shows her how to drive around:

-- If an application, during installation, proposes for itself a name or an icon that looks a lot like the name or the icon of something els Granma already has, give it a new name and a new icon. Don't be shy Granma, it's your computer and your application!

-- If an application asks for a bunch of different authorities, just say no. No legitimate application needs many authorities. (well, except for things like development environments, which Granma doesn't need to worry about).

-- If an application asks for read or edit authority outside the Desktop folder, just say no. (the current draft layout of stuff in a CapDesk world is, ~/Desktop/MyDocuments contains docs, ~/Desktop has stuff you're currently working on, ~/caplets contains applications, an ~/capData contains info for and about those applications. Proposals for rearranging folders are welcome). Granma, you shouldn't go mucking around outside ~/Desktop either :-) (a real installer, unlike the current capDesk installer, would copy the caplet executable into the ~/caplet directory for the user as part of the installation).

-- If an application asks for read authority on a bunch of stuff, and also asks for a connection to the Web, just say no. (granma doesn't quite need this one, but it is a good rule anyway).

-- If an application asks for wide-ranging access to the Web, like a of the http protocol, only say yes if she plans to use it as a Web browser, or if Bobbie says it is ok. A Nancy Drew shared reality team game should only need an Internet connection to one place at a time.

So, there is my draft list, with comments in parentheses that are extraneous to Granma. There's only 5 of them, room for a 40% increase before there are more rules than I've been telling people :-)

What clever and terrible attacks can folks think of that will beat these simple rules? In what ways is my specification of Granma's needs and interests incorrect, that requires more flexibility than allowed by these rules?