Microsoft studying multilevel security desktops

Microsoft is working with the US government in studying one of the most pressing challenges in federal information security, one that is critically important to future homeland security and information-sharing efforts: multilevel security workstations.

In testimony submitted to the House Armed Services Committee Thursday, Microsoft chief security strategist Scott Charney said Microsoft is "actively engaged" with the defense and intelligence communities to enable analysts from different agencies and with varying security clearances to access multiple networks through a reduced number of workstations.

"One possible solution is to provide increased functionality and usability through multiple windows on a workstation that would securely access multiple networks in a compartmentalized fashion," according to written testimony submitted by Charney during the hearing. "We are actively engaged with the government on this important security topic and are currently reviewing technical approaches."

The national security community has been trying to develop and deploy a so-called multilevel security workstation for years. Such workstations would provide analysts who hold the appropriate security clearance and have a need to know with the ability to access information across databases that may be compartmentalized or "air-gapped" for security reasons. It would also enable analysts who are not cleared for access to the most sensitive information to still use the workstations.

As was outlined in the report issued this week by Congress on the intelligence failures that contributed to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, intelligence and law enforcement agents have been forced to use multiple workstations to access information that is at different classification levels or belongs to different agencies. It is a process that not only slows information sharing but often prevents it altogether.

During a presentation last month on the challenges of developing an multilevel security system, Steve Lipner, a former Microsoft director of security assurance, said previous efforts proved to be expensive, cumbersome and limited in functionality.

The alternatives being studied by Microsoft, however, include leveraging new capabilities of the Windows XP Pro operating system and embedding security in the network rather than in the end-user system. Central to this effort is the use of virtual machines to access multiple security domains -- something the company calls Trusted Multi-Net: Typhon XP, named after a 100-headed giant from Greek mythology that was created to kill Zeus.

The goal is to build on National Security Agency (NSA) research using virtual machines to provide separation of security domains on one desktop. The effort currently uses VMware 3.02, which has already been evaluated by the NSA. In addition, there are plans to add support for Microsoft's Virtual Machine Monitor, according to Lipner's presentation at a government IT security conference.

Microsoft is also developing Typhon XP on Windows XPe (embedded), which permits the removal of more operating system features for added security.

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