Security Handbook/Boot Path Security

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Security Handbook
General Guidance
Boot Path Security
Information Security
Mounting partitions
User and group limitations
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This section provides guidance on boot path security.

If an attacker is able to get a system to load arbitrary code they effectively have unrestricted access to the hardware. This may lead to exfiltration of unencrypted data stored on the system; in a typical handbook install /boot is unencrypted and the kernel, initramfs, or bootloader could be tampered with.

The bare minimum that can be done to mitigate against this risk is to restrict permitted boot devices and set a system firmware password to prevent modification of the boot order and firmware configuration; this will prevent an attacker from booting from removable media or a network location.

An additional, but recommended, control is the use of Secure Boot to ensure that the system will only boot from signed EFI files. The only approved keys should be the ones used to sign the bootloader, kernel, initramfs, and modules.

Category Subcategory Control Maturity
Physical Security Boot Path The system firmware should be configured to only boot from approved locations 0
Physical Security Boot Path The system firmware configuration should be protected from unauthorised modification 0
Physical Security Boot Path The system firmware should be configured to only execute a signed payload 1
Physical Security Boot Path The system firmware configuration should contain only user-provided keys 3

Many bootloaders offer the ability to edit the kernel commandline, which can be used to pass parameters to the kernel. This can be used to bypass security controls such as SELinux or to boot into single-user mode.

Category Subcategory Control Maturity
Physical Security Boot Path The system bootloader should not allow the kernel commandline to be edited without authorisation 0
Physical Security Boot Path The system bootloader should be configured to execute only signed payloads 2

General configuration guidance for enforcing these controls is provided below.

System firmware

The system firmware is executed early in the boot process and is typically the first code that a user is able to interact with.

It is responsible for initializing the hardware and loading the bootloader.

The firmware configuration should be protected with a password to prevent modification of the boot order and firmware configuration. The method for setting a password varies between manufacturers and models, but is typically found in the security section of the firmware configuration.

For x86 and amd64 architectures consult the manufacturer documentation for guidance on accomplishing this task.

For architectures like aarch64 and riscv that use U-Boot there are further actions that can be taken to secure the boot process. See the U-Boot section for more information.


For UEFI implementations, Secure Boot and Measured Boot may be used to ensure that the system boot path has not been tampered with.


With the greater control offered by U-Boot it is possible to harden the bootloader and secondary program loader at compile time. It is important to recognize that embedded systems are subject to their own unique set of security concerns and have historically been a target for attackers.

Hardening the boot loader

Once the system firmware is configured to load only an appropriate bootloader the next step is to harden the bootloader itself to prevent unauthorized modification of the boot process.


To harden GRUB, first, generate a password hash using grub-mkpasswd-pbkdf2:

root #grub-mkpasswd-pbkdf2
Enter password:
Reenter password:
PBKDF2 hash of your password is grub.pbkdf2.sha512.10000.abcdef...

Repeat this process for each user (or permission level) required.

Next, define any GRUB users in /etc/grub.d/40_custom.

In this example two users are defined, root, the superuser, and larry who will only have permission to boot specific entries.

FILE /etc/grub.d/40_custom
set superusers="root"
password_pbkdf2 root
password_pbkdf2 larry grub.pbkdf2.sha512.10000.ccc

It is often desirable for default boot entries to continue without requiring an additional password. To define an entry as unrestricted, add --unrestricted to each menuentry line in the /etc/grub.d/10_linux configuration file.

This will look something like the following:

FILE /etc/grub.d/10_linuxUnrestricted boot entry
echo "menuentry '$(echo "$title" | grub_quote)' --unrestricted ${CLASS} \$menuentry_id_option 'gnulinux-$version-$type-$boot_device_id' {" | sed "s/^/$submenu_indentation/"

To restrict entries to specific users (and require their password) add the --users option to the menuentry lines:

FILE /etc/grub.d/10_linuxSpecific user boot entry
echo "menuentry '$(echo "$title" | grub_quote)' --users larry ${CLASS} \$menuentry_id_option 'gnulinux-$version-$type-$boot_device_id' {" | sed "s/^/$submenu_indentation/"

Finally, regenerate grub.cfg file using the grub-mkconfig command:

root #grub-mkconfig -o /boot/grub/grub.cfg
Encrypted /boot partition
As of May 2023, GRUB does offer support for encrypting /boot with LUKS2 however the most secure key derivation function (argon2id) is currently unsupported. This information should be taken into consideration when designing a secure boot process as weak KDFs have been defeated[1]

To ensure that the files used to boot the system are not tampered with it is possible for GRUB to load the kernel and initramfs from an encrypted partition:

FILE /etc/default/grub
GRUB_PRELOAD_MODULES="cryptodisk lvm luks"
Please validate and update this section.
Signature enforcement

GRUB's core.img can optionally provide enforcement that all files subsequently read from disk are covered by a valid digital signature.

If the GRUB environment variable check_signatures is set to enforce, every attempt by the GRUB core.img to load another file foo implicitly invokes verify_detached foo foo.sig. foo.sig must contain a valid digital signature for the contents of foo, which can be verified with a public key currently trusted by GRUB. If validation fails the file will not be loaded which may halt or otherwise impact the boot process.

An initial trusted public key can be embedded within the GRUB core.img using the --pubkey option when invoking grub-install:

root #grub-install --pubkey /path/to/ /dev/sda

GRUB uses GPG-style detached signatures (meaning that the file foo.sig will be produced when file foo is signed) and supports the DSA and RSA signing algorithms.

A signing key can be generated using the following command:

user $gpg --gen-key

An individual file may be signed as follows:

user $gpg --detach-sign /path/to/file

From here, each component that GRUB needs to load may be individually signed:

root #for i in `find /boot -name "*.cfg" -or -name "*.lst" -or \
 -name "*.mod" -or -name "vmlinuz*" -or -name "initrd*" -or \
 -name "grubenv"`;


 gpg --batch --detach-sign --passphrase-fd 0 $i < \
root #shred /dev/shm/passphrase.txt

It may be more effective, however, to build a standalone GRUB image with the required modules, key, and minimal grub configuration built-in; this way only the kernel, initramfs, and on-disk grub configuration (if it is changed) need to be signed.[2]

root #grub-mkstandalone --pubkey "/mnt/grub/" --directory "/usr/lib/grub/x86_64-efi" \
 --format "x86_64-efi" \
 --modules "pgp part_gpt fat ext2 configfile gcry_sha256 gcry_rsa password_pbkdf2 normal linux all_video search search_fs_uuid reboot sleep loadenv minicmd test echo font" \
 --disable-shim-lock --output "/boot/EFI/gentoo/grubx64.efi" "/boot/grub/grub.cfg=/etc/default/grub-signed.cfg" \

With the following grub configuration (used to load the on-disk grub config):

FILE /etc/default/grub-signed.cfg
set check_signatures=enforce
export check_signatures

set superusers="root"
export superusers
password_pbkdf2 root

set root=(memdisk)
set prefix=$(root)/grub
search --no-floppy --fs-uuid --set=root 7DF7-8065
configfile /grub/grub.cfg

echo The on-disk grub.cfg did not boot the system and instead returned to grub-signed.cfg.
echo Exiting in 10 seconds.
sleep 10

This may be automated (and combined with Secure Boot signing) using a script similar to the following:

FILE /usr/bin/sign-installed-kernels

for image in /boot/vmlinuz-*-x86_64 /boot/initramfs*.zstd
   modified=`date -r $image`
   read -p "Do you want to sign $image, last modified on $modified? (y/n)" yn
   case $yn in
      [yY] ) gpg --verbose --homedir=/mnt/grub --pinentry-mode=ask -b $image || exit;;
      *    ) echo "Skipping $image"

echo "Generating GRUB image..."
grub-mkstandalone --pubkey "/mnt/grub/" --directory "/usr/lib/grub/x86_64-efi" --format "x86_64-efi" --modules "pgp part_gpt fat ext2 configfile gcry_sha256 gcry_rsa password_pbkdf2 normal linux all_video search search_fs_uuid reboot sleep loadenv minicmd test echo font" --disable-shim-lock --output "/boot/EFI/gentoo/grubx64.efi" "/boot/grub/grub.cfg=/etc/default/grub-signed.cfg" "/boot/grub/grub.cfg.sig=/etc/default/grub-signed.cfg.sig" || exit

read -p "Do you want to sign /boot/EFI/gentoo/grubx64.efi? (y/n)" yn
case $yn in
   [yY] ) sbsign --key /mnt/efikeys/db.key --cert /etc/efikeys/db.crt -o /boot/EFI/gentoo/grubx64.efi /boot/EFI/gentoo/grubx64.efi;;
       * ) echo "NOT signing GRUB image, Secure boot will NOT work!"
Configuring signature verification does nothing prevent an attacker with physical access to the device from simply disabling signature enforcement within the GRUB console, or using the system firmware to boot from another device.