Back in the '80s, there was an operating system called MS-DOS. This ancient OS, some readers might not even remember it today, had a very simple security model: every application had access to all the user files and other applications.
Today, over two decades later, overwhelming majority of people still use the very same security model... Why? Because on any modern, mainstream OS, be that Linux, Mac, or Windows, all the user applications still have full access to all the user's files, and can manipulate all the other user's applications.
Does it mean we haven't progressed anywhere from the MS-DOS age? Not quite. Modern OSes do have various anti-exploitation mechanisms, such as ASLR, NX, guard pages (well, Linux has it since last week at least), and even some more.
But in my opinion there has been too much focus on anti-exploitation, and on bug finding, (and on patching, of course), while almost nothing has been done on the OS architecture level.
Does anybody know why Linux Desktops offer ability to create different user accounts? What a stupid question, I hear you saying - different accounts allow to run some applications isolated from user's other applications! Really? No! The X server, by design, allows any GUI application to mess with all the other GUI applications being displayed by the same X server (on the same desktop). So, what good it is to have a "random_web_browsing" user, if the Firefox run under this user account would still be able to sniff or inject keystrokes to all my other GUI applications, take screenshots of them, etc...?
[Yes, I know, the user accounts allows also to theoretically share a single desktop computer among more than one physical users (also known as: people), but, come on, these days it's that a single person has many computers, and not the other way around.]
One might argue that the progress in the anti-exploitation, and also safe languages, would make it nearly impossible to e.g. exploit a Web browser in the next few years, so there would be no need to have a "random_web_browsing" user in the first place. But, we need isolation not only to protect ourselves when somebody exploits one of our application (e.g. a Web Browser, or a PDF viewer), but also, and perhaps most importantly, to protect from maliciously written applications.
Take summer holiday example: imagine you're a scuba diver - now, being also a decently geeky person, no doubt you will want to have some dive log manager application to store the history of your dives on a computer. There are a dozen of such applications on the web, so all you need to do is to pick one (you know, the one with the nicest screenshots), and... well you need to install it on your laptop now. But, hey, why this little, made by nobody-knows-who, dive application should be given unlimited access to all your personal files, work email, bank account, and god-know-what-else-you-keep-on-your-laptop? Anti-exploitation technology would do exactly nothing to prevent your files in this case.
Aha, it would be so nice if we could just create a user "diving", and run the app under this account. In the future, you could throw in some advanced deco planning application into the same account, still separated from all the other applications.
But, sorry, that would not work, because the X server doesn't provide isolation on the GUI-level. So, again, why should anybody bother creating any additional user accounts on a Linux Desktop?
Windows Vista made a little step forward in this area by introducing integrity levels, that, at least theoretically, were supposed to prevent GUI applications from messing with each other. But they didn't scale well (IIRC there were just 3 or 4 integrity levels available), and it still isn't really clear if Microsoft treats them seriously.
So, why do we have user accounts on Linux Desktops and Macs is beyond me (I guess Mac's X server doesn't implement any GUI-level isolation either - if I'm wrong, please point me out to the appropriate reference)?
And we haven't even touched the problems that might arise from the attacker exploiting a bug in the (over-complex) GUI server/API, or in the (big fat) kernel (with hundreds of drivers). In order for those attacks to become really interesting (like the Rafal's attack we presented yesterday), the user would have to already be using e.g. different X servers (and switch between them using Ctrl-Shift-Fn), or some sandboxing mechanisms, such as SELinux sandbox, or, in case of Vista, a scheme similar to this one.