Take Control of Your PC with UEFI Secure Boot

UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) is the open, multi-vendor replacement for the aging BIOS standard, which first appeared in IBM computers in 1976. The UEFI standard is extensive, covering the full boot architecture. This article focuses on a single useful but typically overlooked feature of UEFI: secure boot.

Often maligned, you've probably encountered UEFI secure boot only when you disabled it during initial setup of your computer. Indeed, the introduction of secure boot was mired with controversy over Microsoft being in charge of signing third-party operating system code that would boot under a secure boot environment.

In this article, we explore the basics of secure boot and how to take control of it. We describe how to install your own keys and sign your own binaries with those keys. We also show how you can build a single standalone GRUB EFI binary, which will protect your system from tampering, such as cold-boot attacks. Finally, we show how full disk encryption can be used to protect the entire hard disk, including the kernel image (which ordinarily needs to be stored unencrypted).

UEFI Secure Boot

Secure boot is designed to protect a system against malicious code being loaded and executed early in the boot process, before the operating system has been loaded. This is to prevent malicious software from installing a "bootkit" and maintaining control over a computer to mask its presence. If an invalid binary is loaded while secure boot is enabled, the user is alerted, and the system will refuse to boot the tampered binary.

On each boot-up, the UEFI firmware inspects each EFI binary that is loaded and ensures that it has either a valid signature (backed by a locally trusted certificate) or that the binary's checksum is present on an allowed list. It also verifies that the signature or checksum does not appear in the deny list. Lists of trusted certificates or checksums are stored as EFI variables within the non-volatile memory used by the UEFI firmware environment to store settings and configuration data.

UEFI Key Overview

The four main EFI variables used for secure boot are shown in Figure a. The Platform Key (often abbreviated to PK) offers full control of the secure boot key hierarchy. The holder of the PK can install a new PK and update the KEK (Key Exchange Key). This is a second key, which either can sign executable EFI binaries directly or be used to sign the db and dbx databases. The db (signature database) variable contains a list of allowed signing certificates or the cryptographic hashes of allowed binaries. The dbx is the inverse of db, and it is used as a blacklist of specific certificates or hashes, which otherwise would have been accepted, but which should not be able to run. Only the KEK and db (shown in green) keys can sign binaries that may boot the system.

Figure a. Secure Boot Keys

The PK on most systems is issued by the manufacturer of the hardware, while a KEK is held by the operating system vendor (such as Microsoft). Hardware vendors also commonly have their own KEK installed (since multiple KEKs can be present). To take full ownership of a computer using secure boot, you need to replace (at a minimum) the PK and KEK, in order to prevent new keys being installed without your consent. You also should replace the signature database (db) if you want to prevent commercially signed EFI binaries from running on your system.

Secure boot is designed to allow someone with physical control over a computer to take control of the installed keys. A pre-installed manufacturer PK can be programmatically replaced only by signing it with the existing PK. With physical access to the computer, and access to the UEFI firmware environment, this key can be removed and a new one installed. Requiring physical access to the system to override the default keys is an important security requirement of secure boot to prevent malicious software from completing this process. Note that some locked-down ARM-based devices implement UEFI secure boot without the ability to change the pre-installed keys.

Testing Procedure

You can follow these procedures on a physical computer, or alternatively in a virtualized instance of the Intel Tianocore reference UEFI implementation. The ovmf package available in most Linux distributions includes this. The QEMU virtualization tool can launch an instance of ovmf for experimentation. Note that the fat argument specifies that a directory, storage, will be presented to the virtualized firmware as a persistent storage volume. Create this directory in the current working directory, and launch QEMU:

qemu-system-x86_64 -enable-kvm -net none \
-m 1024 -pflash /usr/share/ovmf/ovmf_x64.bin \
-hda fat:storage/

Files present in this folder when starting QEMU will appear as a volume to the virtualized UEFI firmware. Note that files added to it after starting QEMU will not appear in the system—restart QEMU and they will appear. This directory can be used to hold the public keys you want to install to the UEFI firmware, as well as UEFI images to be booted later in the process.

Generating Your Own Keys

Secure boot keys are self-signed 2048-bit RSA keys, in X.509 certificate format. Note that most implementations do not support key lengths greater than 2048 bits at present. You can generate a 2048-bit keypair (with a validity period of 3650 days, or ten years) with the following openssl command:

openssl req -new -x509 -newkey rsa:2048 -keyout PK.key \
-out PK.crt -days 3650 -subj "/CN=My Secure PK/"

The CN subject can be customized as you wish, and its value is not important. The resulting PK.key is a private key, and PK.crt is the corresponding certificate (containing the public key), which you will install into the UEFI firmware shortly. You should store the private key securely on an encrypted storage device in a safe place.

Now you can carry out the same process for both the KEK and for the db key. Note that the db and KEK EFI variables can contain multiple keys (and in the case of db, SHA256 hashes of bootable binaries), although for simplicity, this article considers only storing a single certificate in each. This is more than adequate for taking control of your own computer. Once again, the .key files are private keys, which should be stored securely, and the .crt files are public certificates to be installed into your UEFI system variables.

Taking Ownership and Installing Keys

Every UEFI firmware interface differs, and it is therefore not possible to provide step-by-step instructions on how to install your own keys. Refer to your motherboard or laptop's instruction manual, or search on-line for the maker of the UEFI firmware. Enter the UEFI firmware interface, usually by holding a key down at boot time, and locate the security menu. Here there should be a section or submenu for secure boot. Change the mode control to "custom" mode. This should allow you to access the key management menus.

Figure 1. Enabling Secure Boot and Entering Custom Mode

At this point, you should make a backup of the UEFI platform keys currently installed. You should not need this, since there should be an option within your UEFI firmware interface to restore the default keys, but it does no harm to be cautious. There should be an option to export or save the current keys to a USB Flash drive. It is best to format this with the FAT filesystem if you have any issues with it being detected.

After you have copied the backup keys somewhere safe, load the public certificate (.crt) files you created previously onto the USB Flash drive. Take care not to mix them up with the backup certificates from earlier. Enter the UEFI firmware interface, and use the option to reset or clear all existing secure boot keys.

Figure 2. Erasing the Existing Platform Key

This also might be referred to as "taking ownership" of secure boot. Your system is now in secure boot "setup" mode, which will remain until a new PK is installed. At this point, the EFI PK variable is unprotected by the system, and a new value can be loaded in from the UEFI firmware interface or from software running on the computer (such as an operating system).

Figure 3. Loading a New Key from a Storage Device

At this point, you should disable secure boot temporarily, in order to continue following this article. Your newly installed keys will remain in place for when secure boot is enabled.


Greig Paul is a PhD researcher in the mobile communications group at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow (UK), where he works on mobile device security and secure data storage.