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Theme fund: NGI0 PET
Start: 2019-06
End: 2022-10
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Operating Systems

Qubes OS

Bring the security of Qubes OS to people with disabilities

Qubes OS is a free and open source operating system uniquely designed to protect the security and privacy of the user. Its architecture is built to enable the user to define different security environments ("qubes") on their computer and visually manage their interaction with each other and the world. This project will improve the usability of Qubes OS by: (1) reviewing and integrating already existing community-created usability improvements, (2) implementing a localization strategy for the OS and its documentation, and (3) creating a holistic approach for improved accessibility.

Why does this actually matter to end users?

How can you understand and trust a complex system, like the operating system managing the hardware and software on your computer? You can make the complexity simpler by cutting it up into parts, compartmentalizing what does what, where information is stored, which processes talk to each other. This way users can be sure their system only does what it is supposed to do and know precisely what goes in and what comes out. This can be done through virtual machines, which are isolated simulations of operating systems or programs on a computer. Simply put, you create virtual rooms where only one thing happens and only you have the keys to each door. This can give users complete control over what happens on their computer and ensures that if some malicious software finds a way in, it cannot get to the other rooms. This can be very important if your device contains sensitive information, if some ill-meaning third party tries to listen in, or when the device is part of some crucial infrastructure and is targeted for attacks.

The Qubes operating system is a pioneer in creating an isolated yet workable desktop. Users can segment programs and data into separate cubes, based on how trust. The default cubes are 'work', 'personal' and 'untrusted', that are each run in an isolated virtual machine. If you open a phishing email in your 'untrusted' cube and malware manages to make its way into this specific environment, it cannot get to 'personal' or 'work' and therefore cannot compromise that data (or the entire operating system, which is the case with popular operating systems like Windows that have a huge attack surface). Various colors (think green, yellow, red) can be used to indicate what window and program works in what qube.

Security by isolation can and should be a great way to make operating systems more secure by design. Usability is then of course an important issue: a better secured operating system should not be harder to use then a more vulnerable one. This project will pick up and implement existing efforts to make Qubes more transparent and usable. For example, to manage the qubes a user has created, this project will help to feature interfaces that make it easier to keep an overview. Also, existing work to internationalize the documentation that guides users and developers into Qubes will be updated. And to make the various qubes more accessible, users can switch from colored windows to other types of labels.

Run by Qubes OS

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This project was funded through the NGI0 PET Fund, a fund established by NLnet with financial support from the European Commission's Next Generation Internet programme, under the aegis of DG Communications Networks, Content and Technology under grant agreement No 825310.