Linux kernel lockdown, integrity, and confidentiality

The Linux kernel lockdown patches were merged into the 5.4 kernel last year, which means they’re now part of multiple distributions. For me this was a 7-year journey, which means it’s easy to forget that others aren’t as invested in the code as I am. Here’s what these patches are intended to achieve, why they’re implemented in the current form and what people should take into account when deploying the feature.

Root is a user – a privileged user, but nevertheless a user. Root is not identical to the kernel. Processes running as root still can’t dereference addresses that belong to the kernel, are still subject to the whims of the scheduler and so on. But historically that boundary has been very porous. Various interfaces make it straightforward for root to modify kernel code (such as loading modules or using /dev/mem), while others make it less straightforward (being able to load new ACPI tables that can cause the ACPI interpreter to overwrite the kernel, for instance). In the past that wasn’t seen as a significant issue, since there were no widely deployed mechanisms for verifying the integrity of the kernel in the first place. But once UEFI secure boot became widely deployed, this was a problem. If you verify your boot chain but allow root to modify that kernel, the benefits of the verified boot chain are significantly reduced. Even if root can’t modify the on-disk kernel, root can just hot-patch the kernel and then make this persistent by dropping a binary that repeats the process on system boot.

These patches are intended to prevent that, and this blog post goes into detail about how it all works.


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