NSA to offer a secure platform

NSA to offer a secure platform
NSA to offer a secure platform 

By Wilson P. Dizard III
Government Computer News
04/14/08 issue

The National Security Agency is spearheading a team of intelligence 
agencies and information technology vendors in an effort toward broader 
use of secure multilevel workstations based on High Assurance Platform 
(HAP) standards and specifications.

NSA expects this year to approve outside use of HAP systems, which 
foreshadows the technology.s adoption by federal agencies that handle 
unclassified data in addition to private companies and eventually 
individuals, specialists in the field say.

NSA and its vendors expect to complete the technical and legal reviews 
that constitute the certification and accreditation (C&A) required 
before HAP systems can be cleared for use in the secret-and-below 
intelligence (SABI) world. Early HAP systems have been used in the 
top-secret-and-above intelligence arena for many months.

More to come

The C&A milestone will clear the first HAP release, HAP r1, for use by 
the SABI community.

The release builds on earlier technology work but doesn.t include some 
of its most eagerly awaited features, said Ed Hammersla, chief operating 
officer at Trusted Computer Solutions.

"HAP r4 will include the cornerstones of the HAP technology," he said. 
"That is due in 2012."

Hammersla said the virtual computing features in HAP can strengthen 
security and provide electricity savings for agencies and companies.

"For example, companies that operate electricity grids and pipelines 
have become concerned that their general business-side computers, such 
as the mainframes used for accounting, could provide pathways for 
insiders to drill through to the supervisory control and administration 
(SCADA) systems that regulate their networks," Hammersla said.

SCADA system vulnerabilities have attracted widespread scrutiny as a 
weakness that terrorists could exploit to devastating effect.

Hammersla said HAP's virtualization features and NSA's work to assure 
that the platform design delivers on its potential for stronger security 
could even lead to greatly upgraded household computers.

"An individual user could create a secure zone for sensitive personal 
financial information while allowing less-trusted systems to access 
other parts of a home computer," Hammersla said.

NSA told GCN in an e-mail response to questions that IT vendors could 
reuse the pending HAP security C&A as they develop various systems that 
use the platform specifications.

The HAP designs and specifications rely on shared use of features such 
as those called hardware root of trust and dynamic root of trust for 

Those elements embed upgraded security features in chips and boards that 
strongly resist software attacks, sources in the intelligence community 

The HAP standards and specifications include a mandatory trusted 
platform module (TPM) to carry out essential security functions, such 

    * Generating asymmetric keys
    * Encrypting and decrypting data
    * Handling the keys that TPMs sign and exchange
    * Generating random numbers
    * Hashing data to secure it in transit and prevent improper access

Perhaps the most advertised improvement that the HAP releases offer is 
the increasingly sophisticated use of virtualization.

Intell benefits

HAP systems' use of virtualization, an approach that builds on NSA's 
earlier NetTop architecture, could produce a clutch of intelligence 
technology benefits, program specialists say.

For example, HAP's virtualization features are designed to:

    * Reduce costs by progressively consolidating redundant systems that 
      now maintain security via air gap, or physically separate 
    * Help intelligence practitioners create domains, or secure 
      communities of interest focused on a particular problem, on the 
    * Exploit the capabilities of new chips and chipsets from Intel and 
      Advanced Micro Devices that promise to simplify system 
      architecture and embed additional security into hardware rather 
      than the software methods now used.

The new chip designs will improve HAP systems. integrity by facilitating 
remote attestation.

This process allows computers that communicate with one another across 
domains via classified networks to verify each machine's right to access 
or modify data.

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