Lockheed Martin-Led Consortium Builds Secure 'System Of Systems'

Multilevel Security (MLS) group says this policy-based architecture could apply to sensitive commercial networks as well as government agencies.

A US government intelligence agency-developed approach for secure collaboration in sensitive government environments could soon be used by the commercial world as well. The so-called Multilevel Security (MLS) ecosystem, the basis of which has been in use for several years by Lockheed Martin in the Centralized Super Computer Facility, was recently demonstrated by members of a consortium that includes Lockheed and big-name vendors such as Seagate, CGI, Cray, and Splunk.

MLS basically provides programmatic access to various sensitive systems from multiple levels of user access, according to the developers. It lets an organization run all user and system security levels across multiple departments -- and far-flung sites -- simultaneously, rather than isolating them. Data can be segregated at different security and classification levels, and access is enforced automatically. RedHat Linux, for instance, offers multi-level secure operating systems for the MLS environment, and Seagate's MLS-based file storage can encrypt and label sensitive data at-rest and in-transit.

Among the key secure elements: role-based access control; data tagged with its security level and access control; encrypted data at-rest and in-transit; and forensics for intrusion detection and correlation of security events.

MLS members say it's a breakthrough for controlling the insider threat. If a user were to plug a USB drive into one of the systems in the environment, an automatic audit would catch unauthorized activity. So former NSA contractor and infamous insider threat Edward Snowden theoretically would have been caught in his tracks siphoning files, according to MLS members.

"It can identify someone doing something they're not supposed to do. So if somebody enables a USB port on this computer, you can wander over and see if he had the okay to do it," says Joseph Swartz, software engineer at Lockheed Martin. "It would make a Snowden [insider threat situation] much harder" to transpire, he says.

Snowden had super-user privileges on the network, notes Michael Hoard, a product marketing staff member of Seagate's cloud systems and electronics group. "So when people were sending emails, and store and forward between servers and network nodes, he had super-user [credentials] so he could simply collect any file he wanted and put it on a thumb drive," Hoard says.

Hoard explains the difference between MLS and traditional policy-based computing in high-security networks like this: "This is a programmatic, role-based method, not just 'need to know'" as historically has been the approach, he says. "We have separate policies and roles-based access into user-defined roles in the system, and it programmatically enforces them."

For the commercial world, MLS could help eliminate future Snowdens, he says. "It would apply to government and also to commercial applications that involve intellectual property, financial trading concerns, and healthcare," for example.

So where do data governance and identity and access management technologies fit into MLS? "Those are an orchestration piece at a very high level … of who's doing what and what needs data at what time, and how data flows through workflow. Below that is the MLS set of technologies. It's not just the network part, but the compute part, and also storage," Hoard says.

MLS is a departure from the mindset of securing at each device. "What happened with Snowden was really an outcome of the thought that you could secure each individual device," says Larry Jones, director of product management for Seagate. "It's a step up in security" that allows you to connect two disparate networks and maintain the security between them, he notes.

Initially, MLS is being touted for government agencies to allow multi-agency collaboration worldwide, for example. But it's also a blueprint for highly sensitive commercial environments, such as financial services and retail.

Hoard says the feds have adopted this approach for "multi-agency collaboration" among distributed teams so data goes to the appropriate and authorized users only. Lockheed Martin now has built a "system of systems" with MLS, he says.

So far, vendors with MLS-based products include Lockheed Martin, Seagate, SGI, Cray, Bay Microsystems, Mellanox, Altair, Crunchy, Vion, and Splunk.

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