What is UEFI?

Unified Extensible Firmware Interface. See the main UEFI page for more details.

What is UEFI Secure Boot?

UEFI Secure Boot (SB) is a verification mechanism for ensuring that code launched by a computer's UEFI firmware is trusted. It 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.

SB works using cryptographic checksums and signatures. Each program that is loaded by the firmware includes a signature and a checksum, and before allowing execution the firmware will verify that the program is trusted by validating the checksum and the signature. When SB is enabled on a system, any attempt to execute an untrusted program will not be allowed. This stops unexpected / unauthorised code from running in the UEFI environment.

Most x86 hardware comes from the factory pre-loaded with Microsoft keys. This means the firmware on these systems will trust binaries that are signed by Microsoft. Most modern systems will ship with SB enabled - they will not run any unsigned code by default, but it is possible to change the firmware configuration to either disable SB or to enrol extra signing keys.

Most of the programs that are expected to run in the UEFI environment are boot loaders, but others exist too. There are also programs to deal with firmware updates before operating system startup (like fwupdate and fwupd), and other utilities may live here too.

Other Linux distros (Red Hat, Fedora, SUSE, Ubuntu, etc.) have had SB working for a while, but Debian has been slow in getting this working. This meant that on many new computer systems, users had to first disable SB to be able to install and use Debian. The methods for doing this vary massively from one system to another, making this potentially quite difficult for users.

Starting with Debian version 10 ("Buster"), we have working UEFI Secure Boot to make things easier.

What is UEFI Secure Boot NOT?

UEFI Secure Boot is not an attempt by Microsoft to lock Linux out of the PC market here; SB is a security measure to protect against malware during early system boot. Microsoft act as a Certification Authority (CA) for SB, and they will sign programs on behalf of other trusted organisations so that their programs will also run. There are certain identification requirements that organisations have to meet here, and code has to be audited for safety. But these are not too difficult to achieve.

SB is also not meant to lock users out of controlling their own systems. Users can enrol extra keys into the system, allowing them to sign programs for their own systems. Many SB-enabled systems also allow users to remove the platform-provided keys altogether, forcing the firmware to only trust user-signed binaries.

Shim

shim is a simple software package that is designed to work as a first-stage bootloader on UEFI systems.

It was developed by a group of Linux developers from various distros, working together to make SB work using Free Software. It is a common piece of code that is safe, well-understood and audited so that it can be trusted and signed using platform keys. This means that Microsoft (or other potential firmware CA providers) only have to worry about signing shim, and not all of the other programs that distro vendors might want to support.

Shim then becomes the root of trust for all the other distro-provided UEFI programs. It embeds a further distro-specific CA key that is itself used for signing further programs (e.g. Linux, GRUB, fwupdate). This allows for a clean delegation of trust - the distros are then responsible for signing the rest of their packages. Shim itself should ideally not need to be updated very often, reducing the workload on the central auditing and CA teams.

For extra trust and safety, from version 15 onwards the shim binary build is 100% reproducible - you can rebuild the Debian shim binary yourself to verify that no unexpected changes have been embedded in this key piece of security software.

MOK - Machine Owner Key

A key part of the shim design is to allow users to control their own systems. The distro CA key is built in to the shim binary itself, but there is also an extra database of keys that can be managed by the user, the so-called Machine Owner Key (MOK for short).

Keys can be added and removed in the MOK list by the user, entirely separate from the distro CA key. The mokutil utility can be used to help manage the keys here from Linux userland, but changes to the MOK keys may only be confirmed directly from the console at boot time. This removes the risk of userland malware potentially enrolling new keys and therefore bypassing the entire point of SB.

There are more docs online for how to work with MOK, for example:

Supported architectures and packages

At the time of writing this (31 March 2019) Debian only had a signed shim binary for amd64 (64-bit PC), using a very old shim version (0.9) that was uploaded a long time ago.

We have now moved on to a newer version of shim (15) and extended the architecture list to also add i386 (32-bit PC) and arm64 (64-bit Arm). The new binaries have been audited and we are waiting on signatures from Microsoft now.

On each architecture, Debian includes various packages containing signed binaries:

Name

amd64

i386

arm64

Signed by

Purpose

fwupd

fwupd-amd64-signed

fwupd-i386-signed

fwupd-arm64-signed

Debian

Tools to manage UEFI firmware updates automatically

fwupdate

fwupdate-amd64-signed

fwupdate-i386-signed

fwupdate-arm64-signed

Debian

Tools to manage UEFI firmware updates manually

grub

grub-efi-amd64-signed

grub-efi-ia32-signed

grub-efi-arm64-signed

Debian

GRUB boot loader

linux

linux-image-*-amd64 (*)

linux-image-*-686* (*)

linux-image-*-arm64 (*)

Debian

Linux kernel, various flavours

shim

shim-signed

shim-signed

shim-signed

Microsoft

Main shim binary

shim-helpers

shim-helpers-amd64-signed

shim-helpers-i386-signed

shim-helpers-arm64-signed

Debian

Shim helper binaries - ?MokManager and ?FallBack

(*) The various linux-image packages in Debian are now signed by default. The unsigned packages are called linux-image-*-unsigned.

Testing UEFI Secure Boot

Focusing on Debian Buster, some tests have been performed to make sure that everything is ready. You can help us testing our setup on real hardware, including the installer and the live images. If you want to help us testing Secure Boot you can find more information here.

Secure Boot limitations

By its very design, SB may affect or limit some things that users want to do.

If you want to build and run your own kernel (e.g. for development or debugging), then you will obviously end up making binaries that are not signed with the Debian key. If you wish to use those binaries, you will need to either sign them yourself and enrol the key used with MOK or disable SB.

Using SB activates "lockdown" mode in the Linux kernel. This disables various features that can be used to modify the kernel:

Lockdown mode can be disabled by pressing Alt-SysRq-x. (See "How do I use the magic SysRq key" if you have difficulty with this.) This will re-enable the above features until the next boot.

Example docs from elsewhere:

Infrastructure - how signing works in Debian

If you want to know the implementation details and the current discussions on improvements, see SecureBoot/Discussion.