Matthew Garrett ([personal profile] mjg59) wrote2012-01-17 18:45
Entry tags:

Why UEFI secure boot is difficult for Linux

I wrote about the technical details of supporting the UEFI secure boot specification with Linux. Despite me pretty clearly saying that this was ignoring issues of licensing and key distribution and the like, people are now using it to claim that Linux could support secure boot with minimal effort. In a sense, they're right. The technical implementation details are fairly straightforward. But they're not the difficult bit.

Secure boot requires that all code that can touch hardware be trusted

Right now, if you can run unstrusted code before the OS then you can subvert the OS. Secure boot gives you a mechanism for making sure you only run trusted code, which protects against that. So your UEFI drivers have to be signed, your bootloader has to be signed, and your bootloader must only load a signed kernel. If you've only booted trusted code then you know that your OS is safe. But, unlike trusted boot, secure boot provides no way for you to know that only trusted code was executed. That has to be ensured by OS policy.

This doesn't sound like too much of a problem. But it is. Imagine we have a signed Linux bootloader and a signed Linux kernel, and that these signatures are made with a globally trusted key. These will boot on any hardware using secure boot. Now imagine that an attacker writes a kernel module that sets up a fake UEFI environment, stops the kernel from running code and then executes the Windows bootloader - kind of like kexec, but a little more fiddly. The Windows bootloader believes that it's performing a secure boot, but in fact everything that it believes is trustworthy is the attacker's fake UEFI code. The user's encryption passphrase is logged, the Windows kernel is modified to hide the Linux code and despite everything looking fine your credit card details are on their way to China. In this scenario, the signed Linux kernel is simply used as a malware loader. The only sign that anything is wrong is that boot will be slightly slowed down.

Signing the kernel isn't enough. Signed Linux kernels must refuse to load any unsigned kernel modules. Virtualbox on Linux? Dead. Nvidia binary driver on Linux? Dead. All out of tree kernel modules? Utterly, utterly dead. Building an updated driver locally? Not going to happen. That's going to make some people fairly unhappy.

(The same applies to Windows, of course. Windows 7 allows you to disable driver integrity checks. Windows 8 will have to forbid that when the system's using secure boot)


GPLv3 has various requirements for signing keys to be available. Microsoft's new requirement that systems support the installation of user keys would let users boot their own modified bootloaders, so that may end up being sufficient to satisfy the license. But we're then beholden on Microsoft - if they remove that requirement then users lose that freedom, and suddenly we're in an awkward licensing situation. There are ongoing conversations about exactly what we're able to do here, but it's not a solved problem.

Key distribution

The UEFI spec doesn't describe or mandate a central certifying authority. Microsoft require that everyone carry their key. We could generate our own, but we have much less sway with vendors. There's no way to guarantee that all hardware vendors will generate our key. And, obviously, if we generate a key, we can't just hand the private half out to others. That means that it becomes impossible for people to produce derivative versions of Linux distributions without getting their own key. The kind of identity verification that would be required for getting such a key is likely to be expensive, and also fairly likely to require that the distribution have a legally registered company in order to facilitate the identity verification. Think Extended Validation certificates, not Startssl Free. Hobbyist Linux distributions will be a thing of the past.

Doesn't custom mode fix this?

Microsoft's certification requirements now state that all systems must support a custom mode, implying that it will be possible for a user to install their own keys. Linux vendors would then be able to ship with their own keys on the install media and impose their own policies. Everyone's happy. It's not really good enough, though. People have spent incredible amounts of time and effort making it easy to install Linux by doing little more than putting a CD in a drive. Asking them to go into the firmware and reconfigure things adds an extra barrier that restricts the ability to install Linux to more technically skilled users. And it's even worse than that. This is the full description of the requirement for custom mode:
  1. It shall be possible for a physically present user to use the Custom Mode firmware setup option to modify the contents of the Secure Boot signature databases and the PK.
  2. If the user ends up deleting the PK then, upon exiting the Custom Mode firmware setup, the system will be operating in Setup Mode with Secure Boot turned off.
  3. The firmware setup shall indicate if Secure Boot is turned on, and if it is operated in Standard or Custom Mode. The firmware setup must provide an option to return from Custom to Standard Mode which restores the factory defaults.

There's a few things missing from this, namely:
  • Any description of the UI. It's effectively impossible to document Linux installation when the first step becomes (a) complicated and (b) vendor specific. Vendors are using the UEFI transition to differentiate themselves by coming up with their own unique firmware interfaces. Custom mode is going to look different everywhere.
  • Any description of the key format. A raw binary representation of the key? An EFI_SIGNATURE_DATA struct? A base64 encoding of one, further protected with ROT13? We just don't know.
  • Any way to use custom mode for unattended installs. It's a firmware interface that requires a physically present user. Want to install a few thousand machines over the network? This isn't a scalable approach
  • …and this one's nitpicking, but there's not actually any requirement that the user be able to add keys - a vendor could conform to this language by only letting users delete keys. This is actually ok as long as the user deletes Pk, because then we'll effectively be back in setup mode and can install our own keys from the installer, but it still results in some practical problems

So no, custom mode doesn't make everything ok. Custom mode with a mandated UI and a documented key format would be much closer, but it wouldn't solve the problem of unattended automated installs.


We can write the code required to support secure boot on Linux in a minimal amount of time - in fact, most of it's now done. But significant practical problems remain, and so far we have no workable solutions for any of them.

....pointless banter

(Anonymous) 2012-01-18 04:57 (UTC)(link)
The message is clear. You want power over secure boot? Buy Intel!