Secure Desktops with Qubes: Extra Protection

The one big challenge you may find if you use a USB VM is in video conferences. Since basically every webcam shows up as a USB device, and there currently is no way to share that USB device with other VMs, you are stuck using your webcam with apps in the USB VM only. A further challenge is that, by default, the sys-usb VM has no network access, and because it's a system VM type, you can't just point it to your sys-net VM to grant it network access. Instead, if you want to video conference with a USB VM, you unfortunately must replace the existing sys-usb VM with a new one that is either an appVM or proxyVM so it can get network access. Then you will have to install and run your video conferencing software from within that VM.

The major downside to this approach is that the USB VM is traditionally considered an untrusted VM much like sys-net, yet video conferencing is a somewhat trusted application, because you have to provide login credentials. Whether the security risk is worth the benefit is something you will have to decide for yourself based on your threat model. Fortunately in the future, there is hope that once a new USB virtualization feature hits Xen (and Qubes), you may be able to treat webcams like input or storage devices within Qubes.

URL Handlers

One final enhancement you can make with your Qubes desktop that not only helps with security but also ease of use is the Qubes CLI tools to open URLs in different appVMs. One common use case for this is to configure your email client to open attachments in a disposable VM (something Qubes covers for mail clients like Mutt on its main documentation page). In addition to that, I like to set the default URL handler for appVMs that aren't meant to run a web browser to be my general-purpose untrusted appVM. The untrusted appVM has no personal files or anything really of value to me on it, and I don't enter any login credentials into that appVM. Therefore, I can destroy it and re-create it at any time.

The default URL handler is a setting that you have to make in each appVM. The way I set it is to go to the shortcuts editor for that appVM (by clicking the "add more shortcuts..." option in that appVM's desktop menu) and adding the Preferred Applications program to that appVM's shortcuts. This is the same program that you use on a regular desktop to choose Firefox or Chrome as your default web browser. Once I've added the shortcut, I then launch the program, and in the section where I can set the web browser (Figure 1), I choose Other so I can type in my own custom command, and in that field, I type:

qvm-open-in-vm untrusted "%s"

Figure 1. Changing the Default URL Handler

Once I save that, the next time I click on a URL within that appVM (for instance, in a chat session), I will get a prompt from the untrusted appVM to allow this appVM to open a URL there. You either can allow that every time or select "Yes to All" to allow this appVM to open URLs in untrusted without prompting permanently. I use a similar method to open URLs from my KeePassX password manager in my personal-web appVM instead of untrusted by going into the KeePassX settings and configuring a custom URL handler there instead. If you would rather open URLs in a disposable VM, just change this command to be:

qvm-open-in-dvm "%s"

Although Qubes definitely is very secure by default, these additional settings will help you lock it down even further, and each one gives a prime example of how the principle of compartmentalization can help you isolate and protect your computer. This is the last article I intend to write in this Qubes series for now; however, I likely will come back to more specific Qubes how-tos in the future.


Kyle Rankin is Chief Security Officer at Purism, a company focused on computers that respect your privacy, security, and freedom. He is the author of many books including Linux Hardening in Hostile Networks, DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu