Mandatory Integrity Control
In the context of the Microsoft Windows family of operating systems, Mandatory Integrity Control (MIC) is a core security feature introduced in Windows Vista and implemented in subsequent desktop line of Windows operating systems, that adds Integrity Levels (IL)-based isolation to running processes. The IL represents the level of trustworthiness of an object. This mechanism's goal is to use pre-existing integrity control policies and the involved objects' IL to selectively restrict the access permissions in contexts that are considered to be potentially less trustworthy, compared with other contexts running under the same user account that are more trusted.
Mandatory Integrity Control is defined using a new access control entry (ACE) type to represent the object's IL in its security descriptor. In Windows, Access Control Lists (ACLs) are used to grant access rights (read, write, and execute permissions) and privileges to users or groups. An IL is assigned to a subject's access token when initialized. When the subject tries to access an object (for example, a file), the Security Reference Monitor compares the integrity level in the subject's access token against the integrity level in the object's security descriptor. Windows restricts the allowed access rights depending on whether the subject's IL is higher or lower than the object, and depending on the integrity policy flags in the new access control entry (ACE). The security subsystem implements the integrity level as a mandatory label to distinguish it from the discretionary access under user control that ACLs provide.
Windows Vista defines four integrity levels: Low (SID: S-1-16-4096), Medium (SID: S-1-16-8192), High (SID: S-1-16-12288), and System (SID: S-1-16-16384). By default, processes started by a regular user gain a Medium IL and elevated processes have High IL. By introducing integrity levels, MIC allows classes of applications to be isolated, enabling scenarios like sandboxing potentially-vulnerable applications (such as Internet-facing applications). Processes with Low IL are called low-integrity processes, which have less access than processes with higher ILs where the Access control enforcement is in Windows.
Objects with Access control lists, such as Named objects, including files, registry keys or even other processes and threads, have an entry in the System Access Control List governing access to them, that defines the minimum integrity level of the process that can use the object. Windows makes sure that a process can write to or delete an object only when its integrity level is equal to or higher than the requested integrity level specified by the object. Additionally, process objects with higher IL are out-of-bounds for even read access.
Consequently, a process cannot interact with another process that has a higher IL. So a process cannot perform functions such as inject a DLL into a higher IL process by using the
CreateRemoteThread() API function or send data to a different process by using the
While processes inherit the integrity level of the process that spawned it, the integrity level can be customized at the time of process creation. As well as for defining the boundary for window messages in the User Interface Privilege Isolation technology, Mandatory Integrity Control is used by applications like Windows Explorer, Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Adobe Reader to isolate documents from vulnerable objects in the system.
Internet Explorer 7 introduces a MIC-based "Protected Mode" setting to control whether a web page is opened as a low-integrity process or not (provided the operating system supports MIC), based on security zone settings, thereby preventing some classes of security vulnerabilities. Since Internet Explorer in this case runs as a Low IL process, it cannot modify system level objects—file and registry operations are instead virtualized. Adobe Reader 10 and Google Chrome are two other notable applications that are introducing the technology in order to reduce their vulnerability to malware.
However, in some cases a higher IL process do need to execute certain functions against the lower IL process, or a lower IL process need to access resources that only a higher IL process can access (for example, when viewing a webpage in protected mode, save a file downloaded from the internet to a folder specified by the user). High IL and Low IL processes can still communicate with each other by using files, Named pipes, LPC or other shared objects. The shared object must have an integrity level as low as the Low IL process and should be shared by both the Low IL and High IL processes. Since MIC does not prevent a Low IL process from sharing objects with a higher IL process, it can trigger flaws in the higher IL process and have it work on behalf of the low IL process, thereby causing a Squatting attack. Shatter attacks, however, can be prevented by using User Interface Privilege Isolation which takes advantage of MIC.
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- Brad Arkin (2010-07-10). "Introducing Adobe Reader Protected Mode". Adobe Systems. Retrieved 2010-09-10.
- Introduction to the Protected Mode API
- Windows Vista Integrity Mechanism technical reference on MSDN
- Introduction to Windows Integrity Control: Security Focus article
- Escaping from Microsoft’s Protected Mode Internet Explorer