Securing Kernel – Lock Down Feature

Cyber Security and Linux are such synonyms that proved their efficacy in every aspect. In Linux UEFI secure boot mechanism is introduced with a intent to protect the system against ever raising persistent malware threats, unwanted code in form of unpleasant bits of software,attached to the operating system or bootloader that will survive a reboot. While Linux has supported secure boot for some time, yet there remains the threat of root user. The previous provided secure boot mechanism support is incomplete in that it is still possible for the root user to corrupt the system in a number of ways. Software Patches that attempt to close this security hole are circulating for years, but they have been controversial at best. Following quite a while of endless audits, discourses, and code revamps, finally Linus Torvalds confirmed that another security aspect will be included for the Linux portion, named “lockdown”. The new element will dispatch as a LSM (Linux Security Module) in the Linux part 5.4 branch, where it will be killed of course, as its utilization being discretionary because of the danger of compromising existing frameworks.

“The lockdown module is planned to take into consideration parts to be secured down early [the] boot [process],” said Matthew Garrett, the Google engineer

What is Kernel Lock Down

The Linux kernel lock down feature was designed to prevent both direct and indirect access to a running kernel image. It tries to protect against unauthorized modification of the kernel image and to prevent access to security and cryptographic data located in kernel memory, while still permitting driver modules to be loaded.

Theoretically, the secure-boot chain of trust ensures that the system will never run untrusted code in kernel mode. On current Linux systems, though, the root user (or any other user with appropriate privileges) can do exactly that. For anybody who wants to use secure boot to ensure the integrity of their systems (or, perhaps, to prevent their customers from truly owning the system), this hole defeats the purpose of the whole exercise. Various kernel lockdown patches have been proposed over the years (LWN first covered them in 2012), but these patches have run into two types of criticism:

  1.  restricting what root can do goes against the design of Unix-like systems, and
  2.  locking down the system in this way still does not solve the problem.

However interest in this kind of lockdown persists and increases, though, the lockdown patches are maintained and improved over the period of years. These patches were last publicly posted in November. They were added to linux-next at the beginning of March, and found their way into the security tree on March 31. Security maintainer James Morris has not yet pushed the lockdown patches to Torvalds, but has indicated his intent to do so in the near future. So, unless Torvalds objects, it would appear that kernel lockdown will be a part of the 4.17 release.

“Whenever empowered, different bits of part usefulness are confined,” said Linus Torvalds,

How to lock down the kernel

The series of patches that implements this feature can be seen on It starts with a patch adding a configuration option for the lockdown feature and a kernel_is_locked_down() function to test whether lockdown is in effect. There is a lockdown boot parameter that can be used to enable lockdown, but lockdown also happens automatically if the feature is enabled and UEFI secure boot is detected. After this patch, the mode is implemented but it doesn’t actually lock anything down yet.

No sooner was the lockdown option added than somebody wanted to be able to turn it off. Normally, the ability to defeat this kind of protection would be considered undesirable. In this case, it can only be done from the system console with the magic SysRq-x key sequence.

After that, the real restrictions are added. In lockdown mode, the kernel will refuse to load modules unless they either have a recognized signature or they can pass appraisal from the integrity measurement architecture (IMA) subsystem. Access to /dev/mem and /dev/kmem (which is already heavily restricted on most systems) is disabled entirely. /proc/kcore, which can be used to pull cryptographic keys from the kernel, is disabled.

Access to I/O ports via /dev/port is disallowed lest it be used to convince a device to overwrite important memory via a DMA operation. There are other places where hardware might be used to circumvent lockdown. To try to prevent that, any sort of access to PCI bus operations or parameters (the location of the base address register, for example) must be disabled. The ioperm() and iopl() system calls are disabled, as is direct access to x86 model-specific registers (MSRs).

The ACPI custom method mechanism is also capable of overwriting memory, so it is disabled. There are a few other hazards in ACPI, including the acpi_rsdp command-line parameter, which can be used to change the RSDP structure. The ACPI table override and APEI error injection mechanisms are turned off as well.

None of these changes will help in the case where a specific device driver can be used to overwrite memory. For example, the “eata” SCSI driver has a set of command-line options that control many of its hardware-level parameters; those must be disabled when lockdown is in effect. If anybody is trying to lock down a system that has PCMCIA hardware (younger readers can ask their parents about this), the ability to replace the card information structure (CIS) must be disabled. The serial-port TIOCSSERIAL ioctl() operation is problematic, since it can change I/O port settings. Many other hardware-controlling command-line parameters were annotated in 2016; under kernel lockdown they become unavailable.

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There are a number of restrictions on the kexec mechanism (used to boot a new kernel directly from a running kernel). If the root user can switch to an arbitrary kernel, the system is clearly not locked down, so that must be prevented. The kexec_load() system call is disabled entirely; kexec_file_load(), which can enforce signatures, is still allowed. A mechanism has been added to ensure that the newly loaded kernel retains the secure-boot mode. Once again, IMA can be used as a substitute for signature verification.

“Hibernation” is the process of saving a snapshot of system memory to disk and powering down the system, with the intent of resuming from that snapshot in the future. There is also a variant called “uswsusp” where most of the work is done in user space. In either case, the kernel currently lacks a mechanism to ensure that the image it resumes from is the same as the one it saved at hibernation time. In other words, some clever editing of the hibernation image could be used to bypass lockdown. That is addressed by disabling hibernation and uswsusp entirely.

This whole exercise will be in vain, though, if an attacker is able to install kprobes into the running kernel, so that feature, too, is turned off. Some BPF operations that can read memory are also disabled. These changes will adversely affect a number of tracing use cases. The debugfs filesystem is disabled entirely on locked-down systems.


The new module will bolster two lockdown modes, to be specific “respectability” and “classification.” Each is one of a kind, and limits access to various portion usefulness. “Whenever set to respectability, piece includes that permit userland to change the running portion are impaired,” said Torvalds. “Whenever set to secrecy, piece includes that permit userland to remove private data from the part are likewise impaired.” In the event that essential, extra lockdown modes can likewise be included top, however this will require an outside fix, over the lockdown LSM.

A secure system?

The end result of all this work is intended to be a kernel that cannot be subverted even by a privileged user. As is often the case with such features, kernel lockdown is a two-edged sword. A cloud-hosting provider has a strong incentive to ensure that its operating software has not been compromised, but that is also true of a provider of Linux-based consumer-electronics gadgets that simply wants to preserve a rent-seeking business model. It is hard to protect one type of system without protecting the other.

It is also hard to imagine a scenario where the lockdown feature provides complete protection. If nothing else, there must be a lot of device drivers that can still be used to get around restrictions. But proponents of the lockdown feature will argue that it raises the bar considerably, and that is generally the best that can be hoped for in this world. The one bar that still has to be overcome, though, is acceptance into the mainline. Torvalds has not yet expressed an opinion on this patch set. It would seem that much of the opposition to its merging has been overcome (or worn down), though, so merging into the mainline for 4.17 seems probable.

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