On CVE-2016-4484, a (security)? bug in the cryptsetup initramfs integration

On November 4, I was made aware of a security vulnerability in the integration of cryptsetup into initramfs. The vulnerability was discovered by security researchers Hector Marco and Ismael Ripoll of CyberSecurity UPV Research Group and got CVE-2016-4484 assigned.

In this post I'll try to reflect a bit on

What CVE-2016-4484 is all about

Basically, the vulnerability is about two separate but related issues:

1. Initramfs rescue shell considered harmful

The main topic that Hector Marco and Ismael Ripoll address in their publication is that Debian exits into a rescue shell in case of failure during initramfs, and that this can be triggered by entering a wrong password ~93 times in a row.

Indeed the Debian initramfs implementation as provided by initramfs-tools exits into a rescue shell (usually a busybox shell) after a defined amount of failed attempts to make the root filesystem available. The loop in question is in local_device_setup() at the local initramfs script

In general, this behaviour is considered as a feature: if the root device hasn't shown up after 30 rounds, the rescue shell is spawned to provide the local user/admin a way to debug and fix things herself.

Hector Marco and Ismael Ripoll argue that in special environments, e.g. on public computers with password protected BIOS/UEFI and bootloader, this opens an attack vector and needs to be regarded as a security vulnerability:

It is common to assume that once the attacker has physical access to the computer, the game is over. The attackers can do whatever they want. And although this was true 30 years ago, today it is not.

There are many "levels" of physical access. [...]

In order to protect the computer in these scenarios: the BIOS/UEFI has one or two passwords to protect the booting or the configuration menu; the GRUB also has the possibility to use multiple passwords to protect unauthorized operations.

And in the case of an encrypted system, the initrd shall block the maximum number of password trials and prevent the access to the computer in that case.

While Hector and Ismael have a valid point in that the rescue shell might open an additional attack vector in special setups, this is not true for the vast majority of Debian systems out there: in most cases a local attacker can alter the boot order, replace or add boot devices, modify boot options in the (GNU GRUB) bootloader menu or modify/replace arbitrary hardware parts.

The required scenario to make the initramfs rescue shell an additional attack vector is indeed very special: locked down hardware, password protected BIOS and bootloader but still local keyboard (or serial console) access are required at least.

Hector and Ismael argue that the default should be changed for enhanced security:

[...] But then Linux is used in more hostile environments, this helpful (but naive) recovery services shall not be the default option.

For the reasons explained about, I tend to disagree to Hectors and Ismaels opinion here. And after discussing this topic with several people I find my opinion reconfirmed: the Debian Security Team disputes the security impact of the issue and others agree.

But leaving the disputable opinion on a sane default aside, I don't think that the cryptsetup package is the right place to change the default, if at all. If you want added security by a locked down initramfs (i.e. no rescue shell spawned), then at least the bootloader (GNU GRUB) needs to be locked down by default as well.

To make it clear: if one wants to lock down the boot process, bootloader and initramfs should be locked down together. And the right place to do this would be the configurable behaviour of grub-mkconfig. Here, one can set a password for GRUB and the boot parameter 'panic=1' which disables the spawning of a rescue shell in initramfs.

But as mentioned, I don't agree that this would be sane defaults. The vast majority of Debian systems out there don't have any security added by locked down bootloader and initramfs and the benefit of a rescue shell for debugging purposes clearly outrivals the minor security impact in my opinion.

For the few setups which require the added security of a locked down bootloader and initramfs, we already have the relevant options documented in the Securing Debian Manual:

After discussing the topic with initramfs-tools maintainers today, Guilhem and me (the cryptsetup maintainers) finally decided to not change any defaults and just add a 'sleep 60' after the maximum allowed attempts were reached.

2. tries=n option ignored, local brute-force slightly cheaper

Apart from the issue of a rescue shell being spawned, Hector and Ismael also discovered a programming bug in the cryptsetup initramfs integration. This bug in the cryptroot initramfs local-top script allowed endless retries of passphrase input, ignoring the tries=n option of crypttab (and the default of 3). As a result, theoretically unlimited attempts to unlock encrypted disks were possible when processed during initramfs stage. The attack vector here was that local brute-force attacks are a bit cheaper. Instead of having to reboot after max tries were reached, one could go on trying passwords.

Even though efficient brute-force attacks are mitigated by the PBKDF2 implementation in cryptsetup, this clearly is a real bug.

The reason for the bug was twofold:

  • First, the condition in setup_mapping() responsible for making the function fail when the maximum amount of allowed attempts is reached, was never met:

      # Try to get a satisfactory password $crypttries times
    while [ $crypttries -le 0 ] || [ $count -lt $crypttries ]; do export CRYPTTAB_TRIED="$count" count=$(( $count + 1 )) [...] done if [ $crypttries -gt 0 ] && [ $count -gt $crypttries ]; then message "cryptsetup: maximum number of tries exceeded for $crypttarget" return 1 fi [...] }

    As one can see, the while loop stops when $count -lt $crypttries. Thus the second condition $count -gt $crypttries is never met. This can easily be fixed by decreasing $count by one in case of a successful unlock attempt along with changing the second condition to $count -ge $crypttries:

      while [ $crypttries -le 0 ] || [ $count -lt $crypttries ]; do
          # decrease $count by 1, apparently last try was successful.
          count=$(( $count - 1 ))
      if [ $crypttries -gt 0 ] && [ $count -ge $crypttries ]; then

    Christian Lamparter already spotted this bug back in October 2011 and provided a (incomplete) patch, but back then I even managed to merge the patch in an improper way, making it even more useless: The patch by Christian forgot to decrease $count by one in case of a successful unlock attempt, resulting in warnings about maximum tries exceeded even for successful attemps in some circumstances. But instead of adding the decrease myself and keeping the (almost correct) condition $count -eq $crypttries for detection of exceeded maximum tries, I changed back the condition to the wrong original $count -gt $crypttries that again was never met. Apparently I didn't test the fix properly back then. I definitely should do better in future!

  • Second, back in December 2013, I added a cryptroot initramfs local-block script as suggested by Goswin von Brederlow in order to fix bug #678692. The purpose of the cryptroot initramfs local-block script is to invoke the cryptroot initramfs local-top script again and again in a loop. This is required to support complex block device stacks.

    In fact, the numberless options of stacked block devices are one of the biggest and most inglorious reasons that the cryptsetup initramfs integration scripts became so complex over the years. After all we need to support setups like rootfs on top of LVM with two separate encrypted PVs or rootfs on top of LVM on top of dm-crypt on top of MD raid.

    The problem with the local-block script is that exiting the setup_mapping() function merely triggers a new invocation of the very same function.

    The guys who discovered the bug suggested a simple and good solution to this bug: When maximum attempts are detected (by second condition from above), the script sleeps for 60 seconds. This mitigates the brute-force attack options for local attackers - even rebooting after max attempts should be faster.

About disclosure, wording and clickbaiting

I'm happy that Hector and Ismael brought up the topic and made their argument about the security impacts of an initramfs rescue shell, even though I have to admit that I was rather astonished about the fact that they got a CVE assigned.

Nevertheless I'm very happy that they informed the Security Teams of Debian and Ubuntu prior to publishing their findings, which put me in the loop in turn. Also Hector and Ismael were open and responsive when it came to discussing their proposed fixes.

But unfortunately the way they advertised their finding was not very helpful. They announced a speech about this topic at the DeepSec 2016 in Vienna with the headline Abusing LUKS to Hack the System.

Honestly, this headline is missleading - if not wrong - in several ways:

  • First, the whole issue is not about LUKS, neither is it about cryptsetup itself. It's about Debians integration of cryptsetup into the initramfs, which is a compeletely different story.
  • Second, the term hack the system suggests that an exploit to break into the system is revealed. This is not true. The device encryption is not endangered at all.
  • Third - as shown above - very special prerequisites need to be met in order to make the mere existance of a LUKS encrypted device the relevant fact to be able to spawn a rescue shell during initramfs.

Unfortunately, the way this issue was published lead to even worse articles in the tech news press. Topics like Major security hole found in Cryptsetup script for LUKS disk encryption or Linux Flaw allows Root Shell During Boot-Up for LUKS Disk-Encrypted Systems suggest that a major security vulnerabilty was revealed and that it compromised the protection that cryptsetup respective LUKS offer.

If these articles/news did anything at all, then it was causing damage to the cryptsetup project, which is not affected by the whole issue at all.

After the cat was out of the bag, Marco and Ismael aggreed that the way the news picked up the issue was suboptimal, but I cannot fight the feeling that the over-exaggeration was partly intended and that clickbaiting is taking place here. That's a bit sad.

If the password prompt is not intended to be a security boundary, it should be removed.
Comment by joeyh Wed 07 Dec 2016 03:50:29 PM UTC
@joeyh: The password prompt is meant to be a security boundary protecting the content of an encrypted block device. Its purpose is not to protect against the spawning of a rescue shell.
Comment by mejo Thu 08 Dec 2016 11:23:20 AM UTC