Linux Means Business: Security and Authentication with Digital Signatures

How one university uses PGP and digital signatures to make its network secure.

PGP and public-key cryptography are used all the time for encrypting e-mail and other kinds of messages. They can also be used in other interesting ways. This article describes two other uses for PGP and digital signatures that can help make networks more secure. The University of Maryland University College European Division (quite a mouthful) has 65 Linux-based computer labs in 10 countries. A Linux box in each lab serves files via NFS to Windows/Linux dual-boot clients. The labs are spread out over a huge geographical area, and many are hard to reach. We depend on Linux's reliability to make the system work. At the “education centers”, there is usually no technical support. If a network is down, someone from Computer Field Support must go to the center on an overnight trip to fix it.

To keep things as maintenance-free as possible, we have to develop some secure and reliable systems for managing the networks and the users. The two systems talked about here both use “clear-signed digital signatures” to accomplish their goals. One is a system to securely transmit software upgrades; this has been implemented in Perl and is in use today. The second is a system for remotely authenticating users without the need to access a user database. This one is in the design/specification stage.

There are pointers to information about getting started with cryptography at the end of this article.

Securely Transmitting Software Upgrades

We realized we needed a security system when it came time to upgrade the software on our lab servers. We had to install new versions of the client programs, make modifications to the server config files and other changes. We knew that, in many cases, the upgrades must be able to be made by people with little computer knowledge. The fact that server system files might have to be modified in a particular upgrade meant that superuser privileges would have to be given out. The three situations we wished to prevent were:

  1. Simple media unreliability—the software was going to be delivered via a network connection, on zip drive disks or on conventional floppies. The system would have to protect itself against flaws in the media, such as a floppy disk with bad sectors. The system should refuse to begin the installation if any part of the package is bad.

  2. “Man in the middle” attack—in general, an attack in which someone alters the data after it's been sent, but before it's been received. Once the floppies arrive at the education center, they're left lying around on the user's desk for a while. A curious (or devious) student can pick them up and add some special configuration files to be installed. Since superuser access is given to the upgrade program, someone could modify the contents of the packages and gain root access.

  3. Unauthorized upgrades—our goal of making the upgrades as easy as possible works for approved and unapproved users. An attacker who gets access to one of our upgrade floppies could figure out the file formats and create new upgrades that would change any system files.

These three problems can be summed up as a must to verify integrity and authenticity. We must make sure that the data has not been altered, deleted or added to in any way. We must also make sure that the data comes from the approved source—in this case from our Computer Field Support group. Integrity and authenticity are exactly the functions digital signatures provide. The following protocol solves our problem:

  1. Computer Field Support (CFS) generates a public and private key pair.

  2. A package file listing is generated.

  3. An MD5 checksum is generated for each file and listed in a second column. See Listing 1.

  1. This two-column listing is digitally clear-signed with CFS's secret key. This compromises the certificate delivered with the software package. See Listing 2.

  1. At installation time, the digital signature is checked using CFS's public key, which is stored on the server.

  2. An MD5 checksum is generated for each file in the package and checked against the corresponding string in the certificate.

  3. The installation program in the package is executed.

Using this system, a file can't be modified, because the MD5 checksums wouldn't match in step 6. The checksums in the certificate can't be altered, because the certificate's digital signature would fail in step 5. PGP and md5sum are called from shell or Perl scripts to do all the work. The script that creates the certificate is very simple and doesn't require the user to know how to use PGP. All he needs to know is the correct pass phrase to enter:

rm listing.asc 2> /dev/null
md5sum * | pgp -staf > listing.asc

The user in the field runs another program, which also calls PGP and md5sum. The certificates are more secure when clear-signed than when encrypted, because at this stage we don't rely on any “secrets” being stored on the remote servers. Only the CFS public key is sent into the field. If anyone breaks into one of our computers, the information in the public key is harmless. When we encrypt the certificates, we need to make a second public/private key set for the servers themselves. The private key would be stored on the server and used to decrypt the messages, which would be something “interesting” for crackers to get by. Decrypting the messages also means that a pass phrase must be given to PGP. Either the user would have to enter it, or it would have to be a hard-coded parameter to a program. Since our current system needs to verify only a clear-signed message by using a public key, PGP doesn't need a pass phrase. This makes the installation process easier and safer.

CERT's method for releasing software patches uses a similar system. They digitally sign e-mail messages and README files containing the checksums of files to be downloaded. People who take the time to verify the checksums can easily find out whether the files have been modified.