NSA to offer a secure platform

Agency prepares to certify its first high-assurance system for outside use

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 measurement.

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

The HAP standards and specifications include a mandatory trusted platform module (TPM) to carry out essential security functions, such as:
  • 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 networking.
  • Help intelligence practitioners create domains, or secure communities of interest focused on a particular problem, on the fly.
  • 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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