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The Growing Role of UEFI Secure Boot in Linux Distributions

Mark Doran

Issue #239, March 2014

The increasing use of UEFI Secure Boot in Linux-based distributions delivers heightened security to a wide range platforms and devices.

With the increasing prevalence of open-source implementations and the expansion of personal computing device usage to include mobile and non-PC devices as well as traditional desktops and laptops, combating attacks and security obstacles against malware is a growing priority for a broad community of vendors, developers and end users. This trend provides a useful example of how the flexibility and standardization provided by the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) technology addresses shared challenges in ways that help bring better products and experiences to market.

The UEFI specification defines an industry-leading interface between the operating system (OS) and the platform firmware, improving the performance, flexibility and security of computing devices. Designed for scalability, extensibility and interoperability, UEFI technology streamlines technological evolution of platform firmware. In 2013, developers of several open-source Linux-based operating systems, including Ubuntu 12.10, Fedora 18 and OpenSUSE 12.3, began using UEFI specifications in their distributions.

Additional features of UEFI include improved security in the pre-boot mode, faster booting, support of drives larger than 2.2 Terabytes and integration with modern 64-bit firmware device drivers. UEFI standards are platform-independent and compatible with a variety of platform architectures—meaning, users of several different types of operating systems, including both Linux and commercial systems, can enjoy the benefits of UEFI. Equally, because the UEFI specification includes bindings for multiple CPU architectures, these benefits apply on a variety of hardware platforms with these operating systems.

While UEFI Secure Boot may be one of the most talked about features, the complete set of features in the UEFI specification provide a standardized interoperable and extensible booting environment for the operating system and pre-boot applications. The attributes of this environment make it ideal for increased use in a rapidly widening array of Linux-based distributions. UEFI specifications are robust and designed to complement or even further advance Linux distributions. Industry experts expect to see continued expansion of their use during 2014 and beyond.

UEFI Secure Boot in Linux-Based Distributions

Malware developers have increased their attempts to attack the pre-boot environment because operating system and antivirus software vendors have hardened their code. Malware hidden in the firmware is virtually untraceable by the operating system, unless a search specifically targets malware within the firmware. UEFI Secure Boot assists with system firmware, driver and software validation. UEFI Secure Boot also allows users of Linux-based distributions to boot alternate operating systems without disabling UEFI Secure Boot. It provides users with the opportunity to run the software of their choice in the most secure and efficient manner, while promoting interoperability and technical innovation.

Secure Boot is an optional feature of the UEFI specification. The choice of whether to implement the feature and the details of its implementation (from an end-user standpoint) are business decisions made by equipment manufacturers. For example, consider the simplest and most usual case in which a platform uses UEFI-conformant firmware and a UEFI-aware operating system. When this system powers on (assuming it has UEFI Secure Boot enabled), the UEFI firmware uses security keys stored in the platform to validate the bootloader read from the disk. If the bootloader signature does not match the signature key needed for verification, the system will not boot.

In general, the signature check will succeed because the platform owner will have purchased the system with pre-installed software set up by the manufacturer to pre-establish trust between the firmware and operating system. The signature check also will succeed if the owner has installed an operating system loader that is trusted along with the appropriate keys that represent that trust if those keys are not already present in the platform. The case in which the signature check fails is most likely to arise when untrusted malware has insinuated its way into the machine, inserting itself into the boot path and tampering with the previously installed software. In this way, UEFI Secure Boot offers the prospect of a hardware-verified, malware-free operating system bootstrap process that helps improve system deployment security.

Without UEFI Secure Boot, malware developers can more easily take advantage of several pre-boot attack points, including the system-embedded firmware itself, as well as the interval between the firmware initiation and the loading of the operating system. The UEFI specification promotes extensibility and customization of security-enhanced interfaces, but allows the implementers to specify how they are used. As an optional feature, it is up to the platform manufacturer and system owner to decide how to manage UEFI Secure Boot. Thus, implementations may vary in how they express policy, and of course, UEFI Secure Boot is no panacea for every type of malware or security vulnerability. Nevertheless, in a variety of implementations that have already reached the market, UEFI Secure Boot has proven to be a practical and useful tool for improving platform integrity and successfully defending the point of attack for a dangerous class of pre-operating system malware.

The broadened adoption of UEFI Secure Boot technology, particularly by the Linux community, is not only a movement toward innovation, but also a progressive step toward the safeguarding of emerging computer platforms. The evolution of firmware technology in a variety of sectors continues to gain momentum, increasing the use of UEFI technology in Linux and commercial systems. This is a testament to the cross-functionality of UEFI between devices, software and systems, as well as its ability to deliver next-generation technologies for nearly any platform.

Disabling UEFI Secure Boot in Open-Source Implementations

A variety of models has emerged for the use of UEFI Secure Boot in the Open Source community. The minimal approach is to use the ability to disable the feature—a facility that is present in practically all platforms that implement UEFI Secure Boot. In so doing, the platform owner makes the machine compatible with any operating system that the platform supports regardless of whether that operating system supports UEFI Secure Boot. The downside of taking this approach is giving up the protection that having the feature enabled affords the platform, in terms of improved resistance to pre-operating system malware.

There are a couple key points to understand about the ability to enable or disable Secure Boot in any platform. The UEFI specification leaves both the choice of whether to implement Secure Boot—as well as the choice to provide an “on/off switch”—up to system designers. Practical considerations usually make appropriate choices obvious, depending on the intended use of the product. For example, a system designed to function as a kiosk that has to survive unattended by the owner in a retail store environment would likely choose to lock down the software payload as much as practical to avoid unintended changes that would compromise the kiosk's basic function. If the kiosk runtime booted using UEFI Secure Boot, it may make sense to provide no means to disable the feature as part of the strategy for maximizing kiosk availability and uptime.

General-purpose compute platforms present a different dynamic. In these cases, there is an expectation in the marketplace that the owner's choice of one or more operating systems can be installed on the machine, regardless of what shipped from the factory. For manufacturers of this class of systems, the choice of whether to allow enabling/disabling of UEFI Secure Boot takes into consideration that their customers want to choose from any available operating system, given than some may include no support for UEFI Secure Boot. This is true for open source as well as commercial operating system support. A vendor building a machine that supports all the operating system offerings from Microsoft's catalog, for example, must support older versions that have no UEFI Secure Boot support, as well as the newer ones from the Windows 8 generation that do have such support. Indeed, the need for the enable/disable feature appears in Microsoft's own platform design guide as a mandatory requirement, ensuring that conforming systems can run back catalog products as well as the newest products.

Following the same line of reasoning, most general-purpose platforms are shipping with not only the enable/disable feature, but also with facilities for the platform owner to manage the key store. This means owners can remove pre-installed keys, and in particular, add new ones of their own choosing. This facility then provides the basis for those who choose to roll their own operating system loader images, such as self-signing, or to select an operating system loader signed by the CA of their choice, regardless of whether or not the appropriate keys shipped from the factory.

In some cases, the creators of Linux distributions have chosen to participate directly in the UEFI Secure Boot ecosystem. In this case, a distribution includes an operating system loader signed by a Certificate Authority (CA). Today, the primary CA is the UEFI CA hosted by Microsoft, which is separate but parallel to the CA used for Microsoft's own software product management. At the time of this writing, no other CA has offered to participate; however, the UEFI Forum would welcome such an offer, as having a second source of supply for signing events would be ideal.

In other cases, Linux distributions provide users with a general-purpose shim-bootloader that will chain boot to a standard, more complete Linux bootloader in a secure manner. This process extends the chain of trust from UEFI Secure Boot to the Linux system environment, in which it becomes the province of the operating system-present code to determine what, if anything, to do with that trust.

Linux-Based Platforms that Leverage UEFI Secure Boot

The past year has marked the implementation of UEFI specifications in three popular Linux-based operating systems: Ubuntu 12.10, Fedora 18 and OpenSUSE. Below are additional details about their use of UEFI standards.

Canonical's Ubuntu 12.10

Support for a base-level compatibility between Canonical's Ubuntu and UEFI firmware began in October 2012, with the releases of 12.10 64-bit and 12.04.2 64-bit. At the time of release, industry experts projected that most machines would ship with a firmware compliant with version 2.3.1 of the UEFI standard. Currently, all Ubuntu 64-bit versions now support the UEFI Secure Boot feature. When deployed in Secure Boot configurations, the Ubuntu boot process uses a small “boot shim”, which allows compatibility with the third-party CA.

Fedora 18

The UEFI Secure Boot implementation in Fedora 18 prevents the execution of unsigned code in kernel mode and can boot on systems with Secure Boot enabled. Fedora also boots on UEFI systems that do not support or have disabled Secure Boot. The bootloaders can run in an environment in which the boot-path validation process takes place without UEFI. In this mode, there are no restrictions on executing code in kernel mode. In Fedora 18, UEFI Secure Boot extends the chain of trust from the UEFI environment into the kernel. The verification process takes place before loading kernel modules.

OpenSUSE 12.3

The recent establishment of UEFI as the standard firmware on all x86 platforms was a milestone for the Open Source community, specifically for OpenSUSE. OpenSUSE 12.2 included support for UEFI, and the recent OpenSUSE 12.3 provides experimental support for the Secure Boot extension.

The Linux Community's Increasing Use of UEFI Technology for Security Solutions on Next-Generation Platforms

The increased reliance on firmware innovation across non-traditional market segments, combined with the expansion of personal computing from traditional desktops and laptops to an ever-wider range of form factors, is changing the landscape of computing devices. Although mobile devices have traditionally had a custom, locked-down environment, their increasing versatility and the growing popularity of open-source operating systems brings growing vulnerability to complex security attacks. While UEFI Secure Boot cannot unilaterally eradicate the insurgence of security attacks on any device, it helps provide a cross-functional solution for all platforms using UEFI firmware—including Linux-based distributions designed for tablets, smartphones and other non-PC devices. Currently, no one has claimed or demonstrated an attack that can circumvent UEFI Secure Boot, where properly implemented and enabled. The expansion of UEFI technologies into the Linux space addresses the growing demand for security, particularly across the mobile and non-PC application continuum.

What's Next for UEFI Technology in Linux-Based Applications?

As UEFI specifications continue to enable the evolution of firmware technology in a variety of sectors, their use will continue to gain momentum. In addition, the popularity and proliferation of Linux-based distributions will create even greater demand for UEFI technology. The recent use of UEFI specifications in Linux-based operating systems, such as Ubuntu 12.10, Fedora 18 and OpenSUSE 12.3, underscores this trend.

These distribution companies, along with the Linux Foundation and a number of other thought-leading groups from the Open Source community, are now members of the UEFI Forum. This is an important step forward for the ecosystem as a whole, improving innovation and collaboration between the firmware and operating system communities. For example, as mentioned above, many systems include facilities to self-manage the key stores in the platform, but today, limited potential for automating this exists. Proposals from the Open Source community address this limitation, with the promise of significant simplification for installing open-source operating systems in after-market scenarios. By providing a venue where discussion of such proposals reaches the ears of all the right stakeholders, the UEFI Forum helps speed up the arrival of such solutions in the market. This is exactly the kind of innovation and collaboration that the UEFI Forum is eager to foster.

The increasing deployment of UEFI technology in both Linux and commercial systems is a testament to its ability to deliver next-generation technologies for nearly any platform. A growing number of Linux distributions use UEFI specifications, allowing users to launch virtually any operating system of their choosing, while still enjoying the added security benefits of UEFI Secure Boot. With the expansion of UEFI specifications across numerous platforms, its intended purpose—to streamline and aid in firmware innovation by promoting interoperability between software, devices and systems—is realized.

Mark Doran is an Intel Fellow and the chief platform software architect within the System Software Division for the Software and Services Group at Intel Corporation. As lead architect for the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) program, Doran develops industry standards-based firmware for Intel architecture systems. Doran also serves as president of the UEFI Forum, a world-class non-profit industry standards body that works through industry collaboration to enable the evolution of platform technologies and to advocate a standardized interface that simplifies and secures platform initialization and firmware bootstrap operations.

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