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NSA looks to Linux for virtual security

Software emulation firm VMware teams up with researchers at the NSA to create a nearly crack-proof computer that places sensitive data in virtual vaults inside the PC.

Software emulation firm VMware announced it has teamed up with researchers at the National Security Agency to create a nearly crack-proof computer that can place sensitive data in virtual vaults inside the PC.

The concept, assuming it works, would streamline the methods intelligence agencies use to manage data. At present, the NSA--the military surveillance arm of the United States intelligence community--physically separates networks carrying data of a particular classification. For example, top-secret data might be kept on a different computer than data classified merely as sensitive material. Sometimes, for workers to have access to the information they need, up to six different computers can be on a single desk.

That type of security is called--in typical intelligence community jargon--an "air gap." It works, but its days could be numbered, said Ed Bugnion, founder and manager of research and development for Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware.

"I believe we have a solution out there that provides security comparable to having multiple computers," he said.

Called "NetTop," VMware's answer would turn each computer into a number of virtual PCs running on a Linux computer that would sit on each worker's desk. The security system would erect supposedly impenetrable, but virtual, walls between public data and more sensitive information on the same computer.

If successful, the project could mean huge cost savings and convenience for the NSA and other security-conscious government agencies by eliminating one or more computers--and a variety of network components--cluttering desktops at the agency.

Paul Pittelli, director of information assurance research at the NSA, said the move is part of the agency's new emphasis on saving money through the use of commercial software.

"Users in the national security community have an increasing need for commercial off-the-shelf software," he said in a statement. "We currently require them to use different computers for different applications." That, Pittelli said, will stop if efforts like NetTop succeed.

VMware's plan is to use an offshoot of the company's current virtual machine technology that allows Linux users to install and run Windows or any other PC-based operating system on top of Linux.

The reason the company believes it can succeed is because it doesn't emulate the software but the hardware underneath.

"Java needs a proprietary environment to run," said VMware's Bugnion. "We can run arbitrary operating systems within the PC." Last year, the company also released a version of its software that runs on Windows NT and 2000, enabling users to run Linux (or any other operating system) in a virtual machine on top of Windows.

NetTop will run CNET's Linux Centeron top of a more secure distribution of Linux that the NSA has developed and an initial version of which it released in December 2000.

While nothing is certain in security, Fred Cohen, the University of New Haven's professor of digital forensics investigation, said VMware's idea seems to be a good one.

"It makes sense," he said, adding that "the current VMware technology is not up to a level of assurance necessary for this."

To make Linux secure, Cohen said, better handling of various access levels--essentially, the ability to classify data for various secrecy ratings--needs to be added.

But Cohen agreed the decision to run the VMware technology on top of Linux, not Windows, is key to a government agency like the NSA.

In a nod to the open-source community, he said that--for the NSA's purposes--seeing the source code and testing its security is extremely important.

"You wouldn't want to do it on Windows NT, because you know nothing about what is going on inside NT," he said.