Category Archives: Security

TPM2 and Linux

Recently Microsoft started mandating TPM2 as a hardware requirement for all platforms running recent versions of windows.  This means that eventually all shipping systems (starting with laptops first) will have a TPM2 chip.  The reason this impacts Linux is that TPM2 is radically different from its predecessor TPM1.2; so different, in fact, that none of the existing TPM1.2 software on Linux (trousers, the libtpm.so plug in for openssl, even my gnome keyring enhancements) will work with TPM2.  The purpose of this blog is to explore the differences and how we can make ready for the transition.

What are the Main 1.2 vs 2.0 Differences?

The big one is termed Algorithm Agility.  TPM1.2 had SHA1 and RSA2048 only.  TPM2 is designed to have many possible algorithms, including support for elliptic curve and a host of government mandated (Russian and Chinese) crypto systems.  There’s no requirement for any shipping TPM2 to support any particular algorithms, so you actually have to ask your TPM what it supports.  The bedrock for TPM2 in the West seems to be RSA1024-2048, ECC and AES for crypto and SHA1 and SHA256 for hashes1.

What algorithm agility means is that you can no longer have root keys (EK and SRK see here for details) like TPM1.2 did, because a key requires a specific crypto algorithm.  Instead TPM2 has primary “seeds” and a Key Derivation Function (KDF).  The way this works is that a seed is simply a long string of random numbers, but it is used as input to the KDF along with the key parameters and the algorithm and out pops a real key based on the seed.  The KDF is deterministic, so if you input the same algorithm and the same parameters you get the same key again.  There are four primary seeds in the TPM2: Three permanent ones which only change when the TPM2 is cleared: endorsement (EPS), Platform (PPS) and Storage (SPS).  There’s also a Null seed, which is used for ephemeral keys and changes every reboot.  A key derived from the SPS can be regarded as the SRK and a key derived from the EPS can be regarded as the EK. Objects descending from these keys are called members of hierarchies2. One of the interesting aspects of the TPM is that the root of a hierarchy is a key not a seed (because you need to exchange secret information with the TPM), and that there can be multiple of these roots with different key algorithms and parameters.

Additionally, the mechanism for making use of keys has changed slightly.  In TPM 1.2 to import a secret key you wrapped it asymmetrically to the SRK and then called LoadKeyByBlob to get a use handle.  In TPM2 this is a two stage operation, firstly you import a wrapped (or otherwise protected) private key with TPM2_Import, but that returns a private key structure encrypted with the parent key’s internal symmetric key.  This symmetrically encrypted key is then loaded (using TPM2_Load) to obtain a use handle whenever needed.  The philosophical change is from online keys in TPM 1.2 (keys which were resident inside the TPM) to offline keys in TPM2 (keys which now can be loaded when needed).  This philosophy has been reinforced by reducing the space available to keep keys loaded in TPM2 (see later).

Playing with TPM2

If you have a recent laptop, chances are you either have or can software upgrade to a TPM2.  I have a dell XPS13 the skylake version which comes with a software upgradeable Nuvoton TPM.  Dell kindly provides a 1.2->2 switching program here, which seems to work under Freedos (odin boot) so I have a physical TPM2 based system.  For those of you who aren’t so lucky, you can still play along, but you need a TPM2 emulator.  The best one is here; simply download and untar it then type make in the src directory and run it as ./tpm_server.  It listens on two TCP ports, 2321 and 2322, for TPM commands so there’s no need to install it anywhere, it can be run directly from the source directory.

After that, you need the interface software called tss2.  The source is here, but Fedora 25 and recent Ubuntu already package it.  I’ve also built openSUSE packages here.  The configuration of tss2 is controlled by environment variables.  The most important one is TPM_INTERFACE_TYPE which tells it how to connect to the TPM2.  If you’re using a simulator, you set this to “socsim” and if you have a real TPM2 device you set it to “dev”.  One final thing about direct device connection: in tss2 there’s no daemon like trousers had to broker the connection, all your users connect directly to the TPM2 device /dev/tpm0.  To do this, the device has to support read and write by arbitrary users, so its permissions need to be 0666.  I’ve got a udev script to achieve this

# tpm 2 devices need to be world readable
SUBSYSTEM=="tpm", ACTION=="add", MODE="0666"

Which goes in /etc/udev/rules.d/80-tpm-2.rules on openSUSE.  The next thing you need to do, if you’re running the simulator, is power it on and start it up (for a real device, this is done by the bios):

tsspowerup
tssstartup

The simulator will now create a NVChip file wherever you started it to store NV ram based objects, which it will read on next start up.  The first thing you need to do is create an SRK and store it in NV memory.  Microsoft uses the well known key handle 81000001 for this, so we’ll do the same.  The reason for doing this is that a real TPM takes ages to run the KDF for RSA keys because it has to look for prime numbers:

jejb@jarvis:~> TPM_INTERFACE_TYPE=socsim time tsscreateprimary -hi o -st -rsa
Handle 80000000
0.03 user 0.00 system 0:00.06 elapsed

jejb@jarvis:~> TPM_INTERFACE_TYPE=dev time tsscreateprimary -hi o -st -rsa
Handle 80000000
0.04 user 0.00 system 0:20.51 elapsed

As you can see: the simulator created a primary storage key (the SRK) in a few milliseconds, but it took my real TPM2 20 seconds to do it3 … not something you want to wait for, hence the need to store this permanently under a well known key handle and get rid of the temporary copy

tssevictcontrol -hi o -ho 80000000 -hp 81000001
tssflushcontext -ha 80000000

tssevictcontrol tells the TPM to copy the key at transient handle 800000004  to permanent NV handle 81000001 and tssflushcontext erases the transient key.  Flushing transient objects is very important, because TPM2 has a lot less transient storage space than TPM1.2 did; usually only about three handles worth.  You can tell how much you have by doing

tssgetcapability -cap 6|grep -i transient
TPM_PT 0000010e value 00000003 TPM_PT_HR_TRANSIENT_MIN - the minimum number of transient objects that can be held in TPM RAM

Where the value (00000003) tells me that the TPM can store at least 3 transient objects.  After that you’ll start getting out of space errors from it.

The final step in taking ownership of a TPM2 is to set the authorization passwords.  Each of the four hierarchies (Null, Owner, Endorsement, Platform) and the Lockout has a possible authority password.  The Platform authority is cleared on startup, so there’s not much point setting it (it’s used by the BIOS or Firmware to perform TPM functions).  Of the other four, you really only need to set Owner, Endorsement and Lockout (I use the same password for all of them).

tsshierarchychangeauth -hi l -pwdn <your password>
tsshierarchychangeauth -hi e -pwdn <your password>
tsshierarchychangeauth -hi o -pwdn <your password>

After this is done, you’re all set.  Note that as well as these authorizations, each object can have its own authorization (or even policy), so the SRK you created earlier still has no password, allowing it to be used by anyone.  Note also that the owner authorization controls access to the NV memory, so you’ll need to supply it now to make other objects persistent.

An Aside about Real TPM2 devices and the Resource Manager

Although I’m using the code below to store my keys in the TPM2, there’s a couple of practical limitations which means it won’t work for you if you have multiple TPM2 using applications without a kernel update.  The two problems are

  1. The Linux Kernel TPM2 device /dev/tpm0 only allows one user at once.  If a second application tries to open the device it will get an EBUSY which causes TSS_Create() to fail.
  2. Because most applications make use of transient key slots and most TPM2s have only a couple of these, simultaneous users can end up running out of these and getting unexpected out of space errors.

The solution to both of these is something called a Resource Manager (RM).  What the RM does is effectively swap transient objects in and out of the TPM as needed to prevent it from running out of space.  Linux has an issue in that both the kernel and userspace are potential users of TPM keys so the resource manager has to live inside the kernel.  Jarkko Sakkinen has preliminary resource manager patches here, and they will likely make it into kernel 4.11 or 4.12.  I’m currently running my laptop with the RM patches applied, so multiple applications work for me, but since these are preliminary patches, I wouldn’t currently advise others to do this.  The way these patches work is that once you declare to the kernel via an ioctl that you want to use the RM, every time you send a command to the TPM, your context gets swapped in, the command is executed, the context is swapped out and the response sent meaning that no other user of the TPM sees your transient objects.  The moment you send the ioctl, the TPM device allows another user to open it as well.

Using TPM2 as a keystore

Once the implementation is sorted out, openssl and gnome-keyring patches can be produced for TPM2.  The only slight wrinkle is that for create_tpm2_key you require a parent key to exist in the NV storage (at the 81000001 handle we talked about previously).  So to convert from a password protected openssh RSA key to a TPM2 based one, you do

create_tpm2_key -a -p 81000001 -w id_rsa id_rsa.tpm
mv id_rsa.tpm id_rsa

And then gnome keyring manager will work nicely (make sure you keep a copy of your original private key in case you want to move to a new laptop or reseed the TPM2).  If you use the same TPM2 password as your original key password, you won’t even need to update the gnome loginkeyring for the new password.

Conclusions

Because of the lack of an in-kernel Resource Manager, TPM2 is ready for experimentation in Linux but definitely not ready for prime time yet (unless you’re willing to patch your kernel).  Hopefully this will change in the 4.11 or 4.12 kernel when the Resource Manager finally goes upstream5.

Looking forwards to the new stack, the lack of a central daemon is really a nice feature: tcsd crashing used to kill all of my TPM key based applications, but with tss2 having no central daemon, everything has just worked(tm) so far.  A kernel based RM also means that the kernel can happily use the TPM (for its trusted keys and disk encryption) without interfering with whatever userspace is doing.

TPM enabling gnome-keyring

One of the questions about the previous post on using your TPM as a secure key store was “could the TPM be used to protect ssh keys?”  The answer is yes, because openssh uses openssl (so you can simply convert an openssh private key to a TPM private key) but the ssh-agent wouldn’t work because ssh-add passes in the private keys by their component primes, which is not possible when the private key is guarded by the TPM.  However,  that made me actually look at gnome-keyring to figure out how it worked and whether it could be used with the TPM.  The answer is yes, but there are also some interesting side effects of TPM enabling gnome-keyring.

Gnome-keyring Architecture

Gnome-keyring consists of essentially three components: a pluggable store backend, a secure passphrase holder (which is implemented as a backend store) and an agent frontend.  The frontend and backend talk to each other using the pkcs11 protocol.  This also means that the backend can serve anything that also speaks pkcs11, which most encryption systems do.  The stores consist of a variety of file or directory backed keys (for instance the ssh-store simply loads all the ssh keys in your $HOME/.ssh; the secret-store uses the gnome default keyring store, $HOME/.local/shared/keyring/,  to store collections of passwords)  The frontends act as bridges between a variety of external protocols and the keyring daemon.  They take whatever external protocol they’re speaking in, convert the request to pkcs11 and query the backends for the information.  The most important frontend is the login one which is called by gnome-keyring-daemon at start of day to unlock the secret-store which contains all your other key passwords using your login password as the key.  The ssh-agent frontend speaks the ssh agent protocol and converts key and signing requests to pkcs11 which is mostly served by the ssh-store.  The gpg-agent store speaks a very cut down version of the gpg agent protocol: basically all it does is allow you to store gpg key passwords in the secret-store; it doesn’t do any cryptographic operations.

Pkcs11 Essentials

Pkcs11 is a highly complex protocol designed for opening sessions which query or operate on tokens, which roughly speaking represent a bundle of objects (If you have a USB crypto key, that’s usually represented as a token and your stored keys as objects).  There is some intermediate stuff about slots, but that mostly applies to tokens which may be offline and need insertion, which isn’t relevant to the gnome keyring.  The objects may have several levels of visibility, but the most common is public (always visible) and private (must be logged in to the token to see them).  Objects themselves have a variety of attributes, some of which depend on what type of object they are and some of which are universal (like id and label).  For instance, an object representing an RSA public key would have the public exponent and the public modulus as queryable attributes.

The pkcs11 protocol also has a reasonably comprehensive object finding protocol.  An arbitrary list of attributes and values can be passed to the query and it will return all objects that fully match.  The token identifier is a query attribute which may be present but doesn’t have to be, so if you omit it, you end up searching over every token the pkcs11 subsystem knows about.

The other operation that pkcs11 understands is logging into a token with a pin (which is pkcs11 speak for a passphrase).  The pin doesn’t have to be supplied by the entity performing the login, it may be supplied to the token via an out of band mechanism (for instance the little button on the yukikey, or even a real keypad).  The important thing for gnome keyring here is that logging into a token may be as simple as sending the login command and letting the token sort out the authorization, which is the way gnome keyring operates.

You also need to understand is conventions about searching for keys.  The pkcs11 standard recommends (but does not require) that public and private key pairs, which exist as two separate objects, should have the same id attribute.  This means that if you want to find an rsa private key, the way you do this is by searching the public objects for the exponent and modulus.  Once this is returned, you log into the token and retrieve the private key object by the public key id.

The final thing to understand is that once you have the private key object, it merely acts as an entitlement to have the token perform certain private key operations for you (like encryption, decryption or signing); it doesn’t mean you have access to the private key itself.

Gnome Keyring handling of ssh keys

Once the ssh-agent side of gnome keyring receives a challenge, it must respond by returning the private key signature of the challenge.  To do this, it searches the pkcs11 for the key used for the challenge (for RSA keys, it searches by modulus and exponent, for DSA keys it searches by signature primes, etc).  One interesting point to note is the search isn’t limited to the gnome keyring ssh token store, so if the key is found anywhere, in any pkcs11 token, it will be used.  The expectation is that they key id attribute will be the ssh fingerprint and the key label attribute will be the ssh comment, but these aren’t used in the actual search.  Once the public key is found, the agent logs into the token, retrieves the private key by label and id and proceeds to get the private key to sign the challenge.

Adding TPM key handling to the ssh store

Gnome keyring is based on GNU libgcrypt which handles all cryptographic objects via s-expressions (which are basically lisp like strings).  Gcrypt itself doesn’t seem to have an s-expression for a token, so the actual signing will be done inside the keyring code.  The s-expression I chose to represent a TPM based private key is

(private-key
  (rsa
    (tpm
      (blob <binary key blob>)
      (auth <authoriztion>))))

The rsa is necessary for it to be recognised for RSA signatures.  Now the ssh-store is modified to recognise the PEM guards for TPM keys, load the key blob up into the s-expression and ask the secret-store for the authorization passphrase which is also loaded.  In theory, it might be safer to ask the secret store for the authorization at key use time, but this method mirrors what happens to private keys, which are decrypted at load time and stored as s-expressions containing the component primes.

Now the RSA signing code is hooked to check for TPM s-expressions and divert the signature to the TPM if they’re found.  Once this is done, gnome keyring is fully enabled for TPM based ssh keys.  The initial email thread about this is here, and an openSUSE build repository of the modified code is here.

One important design constraint for this is that people (well, OK me) have a lot of ssh keys, sometimes more than could be effectively stored by the TPM in its internal shielded memory (plus if you’re like me, you’re using the TPM for other things like VPN), so the design of the keyring TPM additions is not to burden that memory further, thus TPM keys are only loaded into the TPM whenever they’re needed for an operation and are unloaded otherwise.  This means the TPM can scale to hundreds of keys, but at the expense of taking longer: Instead of simply asking the TPM to sign something, you have to first ask the TPM to load and unwrap (which is an RSA operation) the key, then use it to sign.  Effectively it’s two expensive TPM operations per real cryptographic function.

Using TPM based ssh keys

Once you’ve installed the modified gnome-keyring package, you’re ready actually to make use of it.  Since we’re going to replace all your ssh private keys with TPM equivalents, which are keyed to a given storage root key (SRK)1 which changes every time the TPM is cleared, it is prudent to take a backup of all your ssh keys on some offline encrypted USB stick, just in case you ever need to restore them (or transfer them to a new laptop2).

cd ~/.ssh/
for pub in *rsa*.pub; do
    priv=$(basename $pub .pub)
    echo $priv
    create_tpm_key -m -a -w $priv ${priv}.tpm
    mv ${priv}.tpm $priv
done

You’ll be prompted first to create a TPM authorization password for the key, then to verify it, then to give the PEM password for the ssh key (for each key).  Note, this only transfers RSA keys (the only algorithm the TPM can handle) and also note the script above is overwriting the PEM private key, so make sure you have a backup.  The create_tpm_key command comes from the openssl_tpm_engine package, which I’ve patched here to support random migration authority and well known SRK authority.

All you have to do now is log out and back in (to restart the gnome-keyring daemon with the new ssh keystore) and you’re using TPM based keys for all your ssh operations.  I’ve noticed that this adds a couple of hundred milliseconds per login, so if you batch stuff over ssh, this is why your scripts are slower.

Using Your TPM as a Secure Key Store

One of the new features of Linux Plumbers Conference this year was the TPM Microconference, which facilitated great discussions both in the session itself and in the hallways.  Quite a bit of discussion was generated by the Beginner’s Guide to the TPM talk I gave, mostly because I blamed the Trusted Computing Group for the abject failure to adopt TPMs for anything citing the incredible complexity of their stack.

The main thing that came out of this discussion was that a lot of this stack complexity can be hidden from users and we should concentrate on making the TPM “just work” for all cryptographic functions where we have parallels in the existing security layers (like the keystore).  One of the great advantages of the TPM, instead of messing about with USB pkcs11 tokens, is that it has a file format for TPM keys (I’ll explain this later) which can be used directly in place of standard private key files.  However, before we get there, lets discuss some of the basics of how your TPM works and how to make use of it.

TPM Basics

Note that all of what I’m saying below applies to a 1.2 TPM (the type most people have in their laptops) 2.0 TPMs are now appearing on the market, but chances are you have a 1.2.

A TPM is traditionally delivered in your laptop in an uninitialised state.  In older laptops, the TPM is traditionally disabled and you usually have to find an entry in the BIOS menu to enable it.  In more modern laptops (thanks to Windows 10) the TPM is enabled in the bios and ready for the OS install to make use of it.  All TPMs are delivered with one manufacturer set key called the Endorsement Key (EK).  This key is unique to your TPM (like an identifying label) and is used as part of the attestation protocol.  Because the EK is a unique label, the attestation protocol is rather complex involving a so called privacy CA to protect your identity, but because it isn’t necessary to use the TPM as a secure keystore, I won’t cover it further.

The other important key, which you have to generate, is called the Storage Root Key.  This key is generated internally within the TPM once somebody takes ownership of it.  The package you need to begin using the tpm is tpm-tools, which is packaged by most distros. You must also have the Linux TSS stack trousers installed (just installing tpm-tools will often pull this in) and have the tcsd part of trousers running (usually systemctl start tcsd; systemctl enable tcsd). I tend to configure my TPM with an owner password (for things like resetting dictionary attacks) but a well known storage root key authority.  To do this from a fully cleared and enabled TPM, execute

tpm_takeownership -z

And give your chosen owner password when prompted.  If you get an error, chances are you need to go back to the BIOS menu and actively clear and reset the TPM (usually under the security options).

Aside about Authority and the Trusted Security Stack

To the TPM, an “authority” is a 20 byte number you use to prove you’re allowed to manipulate whatever object you’re trying to use.  The TPM typically has a well known way of converting typed passwords into these 20 byte codes.  The way you prove you know the authority is to add a Hashed Message Authentication Code (HMAC) to your TPM command.  This means that the hash can only be generated by someone who knows the authority for the object, but anyone seeing the hash cannot derive the authority from it.  The utility of this is that the trousers library (tspi) generates the HMAC before the TPM command is passed to the central daemon (tcsd) meaning that nothing except you and the TPM know the authority

trousersThe final thing about authority you need to know is that the TPM has a concept of “well known authority” which simply means supply 20 bytes of zeros.  It’s kind of paradoxical to have a secret everyone knows, however, there are reasons for this:  For most objects in the TPM whether you require authority to use them is optional, but for some it is mandatory.  For objects (like the SRK) where authority is mandatory, using the well known authority is equivalent to saying actually I don’t need authorization for this object.

The Storage Root Key (SRK)

Once you’ve generated this above, the TPM keeps the secret part permanently hidden, but can be persuaded to give anyone the public part.  In TPM 1.2, the SRK is a RSA 2048 key.  On most modern TPMs, you have to tell the tpm you want anyone to be able to read the public part of the storage root key, which you do with this command

tpm_restrictsrk -a

You’ll get prompted for the owner password.  Once you execute this command, anyone who knows the SRK authority (which you’ve set to be well known) is allowed to read the public part.

Why all this fuss about SRK authorization?  Well, traditionally, the TPM is designed for use in a hostile multi-user environment.  In the relaxed, no authorization, environment I’ve advised you to set up, anyone who knows the SRK can upload any storage object (like a key or protected blob) into the TPM.  This means, since the TPM has very limited storage, that they could in theory do a DoS attack against the TPM simply by filling it with objects.  On a laptop where there’s only one user (you) this is not usually a concern, hence the advice to use a well known authority, which makes the TPM much easier to use.

The way external objects (like keys or data blobs) are uploaded into the TPM is that they all have a parent (which must be a storage key) and they are encrypted to the public part of this key (in TPM parlance, this is called wrapping).  The TPM can have deep key hierarchies (all eventually parented to the SRK), but for a laptop, it makes sense simply to use the SRK as the only storage key and wrap everything for it as the parent.  Now here’s the reason for the well known authority: to upload an object into the TPM, it not only needs to be wrapped to the parent key, you also need to use the parent key authority to perform the upload.  The object you’re using also has a separate authority.  This means that when you upload and use a key, if you’ve set a SRK password, you’ll end up having to type both the SRK password and the key password pretty much every time you use it, which is a bit of a pain.

The tools used to create wrapped keys are found in the openssl_tpm_engine package.  I’ve done a few patches to make it easier to use (mostly by trying well known authority first before asking for the SRK password), so you can see my patched version here.  The first thing you can do is take any PEM key file you have and wrap it for your tpm

create_tpm_key -m -w test.key test.tpm.key

This creates a TPM key file test.tpm.key containing a wrapped key for your TPM with no authority (to add an authority password, use the -a option).  If you cat the test.tpm.key file, you’ll see it looks like a standard PEM file, except the guards are now

-----BEGIN TSS KEY BLOB-----
-----END TSS KEY BLOB-----

This key is now wrapped for your TPM’s SRK and would only be usable on your laptop.  If you’re fortunate enough to be using an application linked with gnutls, you can simply use this key with the URI  tpmkey:file=<path to test.tpm.key>.  If you’re using openssl, you need to patch it to get it to use TPM keys easily (see below).

The ideal, however, would be since these are PEM files with unique guards, any ssl provider should simply recognise the guards  and load the key into the TPM  This means that in order to use a TPM key, you take a standard PEM private key file, transform it into a TPM key file and then simply copy it back to where the original key file was being used from and voila! you’re using a TPM based key.  This is what the openssl patches below do.

Getting TPM keys to “just work” with openssl

In openssl, external encryption processors, like the TPM or USB keys are used by things called engines.  The engine you need for the TPM is also in the openssl_tpm_engine package, so once you’ve installed that package, the engine is available.  Unfortunately, openssl doesn’t naturally use a particular engine unless told to do so (most of the openssl tools have a -engine option for this).  However, having to specify the engine in every application somewhat spoils the “just works” aspect we’re looking for, so the openssl patches here allow an engine to specify that it knows how to parse a PEM file and can load a key from it.  This allows you simply to replace the original key file with a TPM protected key file and have your application continue working with it.

As a demo of the usefulness, I’m using it on my current laptop with all my VPN keys.  It is also possible to use it with openssh keys, since they’re standard PEM files.  However, the way openssh works with agents means that the agent cannot handle the keys and you have to type the password (if you set one one the key) each time you use it.

It should be noted that the idea of having PEM based TPM keys just work in openssl is encountering resistance.  However, it does just work in gnutls (provided you change the file name to be a tpmkey:file= URL).

Conclusions (or How Well is it Working?)

As I said above, I’m currently using this scheme for my openvpn and ssh keys.  I have to confess, since I use openssh a lot, I got very tired of having to type the password on every ssh operation, so I’ve gone back to using non-TPM based keys which can be handled by the agent.  Fixing this is on my list of things to look at.  However, I still am using TPM based keys for my openvpn.

Even for openvpn, though there are hiccoughs: the trousers daemon, tcsd, crashes periodically on my platform.  When it does, the vpn goes down (because the VPN needs a key based authentication transaction every hour to rotate the symmetric encryption keys).  Unfortunately, just restarting tcsd isn’t enough because the design of trousers doesn’t seem to be robust to this failure (even though the tspi part linked with the application could recreate all the keys), so the VPN itself must be restarted when this happens, which makes it rather user unfriendly.  Fixing trousers to cope with tcsd failure is also on my list of things to fix …

Home Automation: Coping with Insecurity in the IoT

Reading Matthew Garret’s exposés of home automation IoT devices makes most engineers think “hell no!” or “over my dead body!”.  However, there’s also the siren lure that the ability to program your home, or update its settings from anywhere in the world is phenomenally useful:  for instance, the outside lights in my house used to depend on two timers (located about 50m from each other).  They were old, loud (to the point the neighbours used to wonder what the buzzing was when they visited) and almost always wrongly set for turning the lights on at sunset.  The final precipitating factor for me was the need to replace our thermostat, whose thermistor got so eccentric it started cooling in winter; so away went all the timers and their loud noises and in came a z-wave based home automation system, and the guilty pleasure of having an IoT based home automation system.  Now the lights precisely and quietly turn on at sunset and off at 23:00 (adjusting themselves for daylight savings); the thermostat is accessible from my phone, meaning I can adjust it from wherever I happen to be (including Hong Kong airport when I realised I’d forgotten to set it to energy saving mode before we went on holiday).  Finally, there’s waking up at 3am to realise your wife has fallen asleep over her book again and being able to turn off her reading light from your alarm clock without having to get out of bed … Automation bliss!

We all want the convenience; the trick is to work around the rampant insecurity that comes with today’s IoT to avoid your home automation system being part of the DDoS bot net that brings down the internet.

Selecting your network

For me, nothing IP/Wifi based was partly due to Matthew’s blog and partly because my home Wifi network looks different from everyone else’s: I actually run an internal, secure, home network that is wired and have my Wifi sit unsecured and outside the firewall.  This goes back to the good old days of expecting to find wifi wherever you travelled and returning the courtesy by ensuring your wifi was accessible, but it does mean that any wifi connected device would be outside my firewall and open to all, which, given the general insecurity of the devices, makes this a non-starter.

The next level down is to use a private network, like zigbee or z-wave.  I chose z-wave because it covers longer distances (which I need) and it doesn’t interfere with wifi (I have a hard time covering the entire house, even with two wifi access points).  Z-wave also looks secure, but, if you dig deeply, you find that there are flaws in the protocol that lay you open to a local attacker.  This, by the way, shows the futility of demanding security from IoT vendors who really don’t understand how to do it: a flawed security implementation is pretty much as bad as no security at all.

Once this decision is made, the next is to choose a gateway to the internet that does what you want, namely give you remote control without giving up your security.

Gateway Phone Home?

A surprising number of z-wave controllers are of the phone home type (this means phone their manufacturer’s home, not you), and almost all of these simply won’t work if they’re not allowed to phone home.  Google comprehensively demonstrated the issues this raises with nest: lots of early adopters now have so much non-functional junk.

For me, there was also the burned hand experience with Google services: whenever I travel, I invariably get locked out because of some pseudo-security issue and it takes a fight to get back in again. This ultimately precipitated my move away from the Google cloud and on to Owncloud for calendar and contacts, but also means I really don’t want to have to trust another external service for my home automation.

Given the significantly limited choice of non-phone home z-wave controllers, I chose the HomeSeer Zee S2.  It’s basically a raspberry pi with a z-wave dongle and Linux.  If you’re into Linux on evereything, you should be aware that the home automation system is actually written in .net and it uses mono to bridge the gap; an odd choice given that there’s no known windows platform that could actually possibly run this system.

Secure Internet based Automation

The ZS2 does actually come with wifi, but given my already listed wifi problems, it’s actually plugged into my secure wired network with all phone home capabilities disabled.  Great, but that means it’s only accessible over a VPN and I want to be able to control it from things like my phone, where running a VPN is cumbersome, so lets do some magic tricks to make it securely accessible by any member of the family from any device.

Obviously, since I already run Owncloud, I have a server of my own in a co-located site.  It’s this server I propose to use as my secure gateway.  The obvious way of doing this is simply proxying the ZS2 controller web page, but there are a couple of problems: firstly if I do it globally the ZS2 will be visible to port scans and secondly it only actually has an unencrypted web page with http authentication, meaning the login credentials would go over the internet in clear text … oops!

The solution to the first of these is to make the web page only accessible to authenticated devices.  My current method is to use firewall whitelisting and a hook to an existing service authentication to open up the port.  So in the firewall mangle table, all the ports which require whitelisting are marked.  Then, in the input firewall, any packet so marked is checked against the whitelist for a matching source IP.  If a match is found, then the packet is permitted, otherwise it is denied.

Whitelisting itself is done by a simple pam script

#!/usr/bin/perl
use Socket;

$xt_file = '/proc/net/xt_recent/whitelist';

$name = $ENV{'PAM_RHOST'};
if ($name =~ m/^[0-9]+\.[0-9]+\.[0-9]+\.[0-9]+$/) {
 $addr = $name;
} else {
 $ip = gethostbyname($name);
 $addr = inet_ntoa($ip);
}

open(FD, ">$xt_file");
print FD "+$addr\n";
close(FD);

exit 0

And this script is executed from the dovecot pam file as

# add session to cause ip address of successful login to be whitelisted
session optional pam_exec.so /etc/pam.d/whitelist.pl

Meaning that any IP address that gets an authenticated imap connection (which is basically everybody’s internet device, since they all connect to email) is now allowed to access the authenticated ports.  Since imap requires re-authentication after a configurable timeout, the whitelist entry only lasts for just over that timeout and hey presto, we have our secured port system.

Obviously, this isn’t foolproof: in particular whitelisting by external IP means that anyone sharing the same ip address via nat (like at a hotel) also has access to the secured ports, but it does cut down enormously on generic internet visibility.

The final thing is to add security to the insecure web page, so anyone in the path to my internet host can’t sniff the password.  This is easily achieved by an stunnel redirect from the secure incoming port to the ZS2 over the VPN that connects to the internal network.  The beauty of this is that stunnel can now use the existing web certificate for my internet host to afford protection from man in the middle attacks as well.

Last thoughts about Security

Obviously, the security above isn’t perfect.  Anyone sharing my external IP would be able to run a port scan and (if they’re clever) detect the https port the ZS2 is on.  However, it does require a lot of luck to do this and, obviously, even if they’re in the fortunate position of sharing an IP address, I’ve changed the default password, so the recent Mirai attack wouldn’t have been able to compromise the device.

Do I think this is good enough security: absolutely.  In security, the bear principle applies: in that when escaping from a ravenous bear, you don’t have to be able to run faster than the bear itself, you merely need to be able to run faster than the slowest other potential food source …  In internet terms, this means that while there are so many completely insecure devices out there, no-one can be bothered to hack a moderately secure system like mine because the customisation makes it quite a bit harder.  It’s also instructive to think that the bear principle is why Linux has such a security reputation: it’s not that we have perfect security against virus and trojan systems, it’s just that Windows was always so much worse …

Eventually, something like Mirai will look to attack the ZS2 web server itself (it is .net based, after all) rather than simply try a list of default passwords and then I’ll need to be a bit more clever, but while everyone else is so much more insecure, that day will be long delayed.