19.16 Encrypting Disk Partitions

Contributed by Lucky Green.

FreeBSD offers excellent online protections against unauthorized data access. File permissions and Mandatory Access Control (MAC) (see Chapter 17) help prevent unauthorized third-parties from accessing data while the operating system is active and the computer is powered up. However, the permissions enforced by the operating system are irrelevant if an attacker has physical access to a computer and can simply move the computer's hard drive to another system to copy and analyze the sensitive data.

Regardless of how an attacker may have come into possession of a hard drive or powered-down computer, both GEOM Based Disk Encryption (gbde) and geli cryptographic subsystems in FreeBSD are able to protect the data on the computer's file systems against even highly-motivated attackers with significant resources. Unlike cumbersome encryption methods that encrypt only individual files, gbde and geli transparently encrypt entire file systems. No cleartext ever touches the hard drive's platter.

19.16.1 Disk Encryption with gbde

  1. Become root

    Configuring gbde requires super-user privileges.

    % su -
  2. Add gbde(4) Support to the Kernel Configuration File

    Add the following line to the kernel configuration file:

    options GEOM_BDE

    Rebuild the kernel as described in Chapter 9.

    Reboot into the new kernel.

  3. An alternative to recompiling the kernel is to use kldload to load gbde(4):

    # kldload geom_bde Preparing the Encrypted Hard Drive

The following example assumes that you are adding a new hard drive to your system that will hold a single encrypted partition. This partition will be mounted as /private. gbde can also be used to encrypt /home and /var/mail, but this requires more complex instructions which exceed the scope of this introduction.

  1. Add the New Hard Drive

    Install the new drive to the system as explained in Section 19.3. For the purposes of this example, a new hard drive partition has been added as /dev/ad4s1c. The /dev/ad0s1* devices represent existing standard FreeBSD partitions on the example system.

    # ls /dev/ad*
    /dev/ad0        /dev/ad0s1b     /dev/ad0s1e     /dev/ad4s1
    /dev/ad0s1      /dev/ad0s1c     /dev/ad0s1f     /dev/ad4s1c
    /dev/ad0s1a     /dev/ad0s1d     /dev/ad4
  2. Create a Directory to Hold gbde Lock Files

    # mkdir /etc/gbde

    The gbde lock file contains information that gbde requires to access encrypted partitions. Without access to the lock file, gbde will not be able to decrypt the data contained in the encrypted partition without significant manual intervention which is not supported by the software. Each encrypted partition uses a separate lock file.

  3. Initialize the gbde Partition

    A gbde partition must be initialized before it can be used. This initialization needs to be performed only once:

    # gbde init /dev/ad4s1c -i -L /etc/gbde/ad4s1c.lock

    gbde(8) will open your editor, permitting you to set various configuration options in a template. For use with UFS1 or UFS2, set the sector_size to 2048:

    # $FreeBSD: src/sbin/gbde/template.txt,v 2009/08/03 08:13:06 kensmith Exp $
    # Sector size is the smallest unit of data which can be read or written.
    # Making it too small decreases performance and decreases available space.
    # Making it too large may prevent filesystems from working.  512 is the
    # minimum and always safe.  For UFS, use the fragment size
    sector_size	=	2048

    gbde(8) will ask you twice to type the passphrase that should be used to secure the data. The passphrase must be the same both times. gbde's ability to protect your data depends entirely on the quality of the passphrase that you choose. [1]

    The gbde init command creates a lock file for your gbde partition that in this example is stored as /etc/gbde/ad4s1c.lock. gbde lock files must end in “.lock” in order to be correctly detected by the /etc/rc.d/gbde start up script.

    Caution: gbde lock files must be backed up together with the contents of any encrypted partitions. While deleting a lock file alone cannot prevent a determined attacker from decrypting a gbde partition, without the lock file, the legitimate owner will be unable to access the data on the encrypted partition without a significant amount of work that is totally unsupported by gbde(8) and its designer.

  4. Attach the Encrypted Partition to the Kernel

    # gbde attach /dev/ad4s1c -l /etc/gbde/ad4s1c.lock

    You will be asked to provide the passphrase that you selected during the initialization of the encrypted partition. The new encrypted device will show up in /dev as /dev/device_name.bde:

    # ls /dev/ad*
    /dev/ad0        /dev/ad0s1b     /dev/ad0s1e     /dev/ad4s1
    /dev/ad0s1      /dev/ad0s1c     /dev/ad0s1f     /dev/ad4s1c
    /dev/ad0s1a     /dev/ad0s1d     /dev/ad4        /dev/ad4s1c.bde
  5. Create a File System on the Encrypted Device

    Once the encrypted device has been attached to the kernel, you can create a file system on the device. To create a file system on the encrypted device, use newfs(8). Since it is much faster to initialize a new UFS2 file system than it is to initialize the old UFS1 file system, using newfs(8) with the -O2 option is recommended.

    # newfs -U -O2 /dev/ad4s1c.bde

    Note: The newfs(8) command must be performed on an attached gbde partition which is identified by a *.bde extension to the device name.

  6. Mount the Encrypted Partition

    Create a mount point for the encrypted file system.

    # mkdir /private

    Mount the encrypted file system.

    # mount /dev/ad4s1c.bde /private
  7. Verify That the Encrypted File System is Available

    The encrypted file system should now be visible to df(1) and be available for use.

    % df -H
    Filesystem        Size   Used  Avail Capacity  Mounted on
    /dev/ad0s1a      1037M    72M   883M     8%    /
    /devfs            1.0K   1.0K     0B   100%    /dev
    /dev/ad0s1f       8.1G    55K   7.5G     0%    /home
    /dev/ad0s1e      1037M   1.1M   953M     0%    /tmp
    /dev/ad0s1d       6.1G   1.9G   3.7G    35%    /usr
    /dev/ad4s1c.bde   150G   4.1K   138G     0%    /private Mounting Existing Encrypted File Systems

After each boot, any encrypted file systems must be re-attached to the kernel, checked for errors, and mounted, before the file systems can be used. The required commands must be executed as user root.

  1. Attach the gbde Partition to the Kernel

    # gbde attach /dev/ad4s1c -l /etc/gbde/ad4s1c.lock

    You will be asked to provide the passphrase that you selected during initialization of the encrypted gbde partition.

  2. Check the File System for Errors

    Since encrypted file systems cannot yet be listed in /etc/fstab for automatic mounting, the file systems must be checked for errors by running fsck(8) manually before mounting.

    # fsck -p -t ffs /dev/ad4s1c.bde
  3. Mount the Encrypted File System

    # mount /dev/ad4s1c.bde /private

    The encrypted file system is now available for use. Automatically Mounting Encrypted Partitions

It is possible to create a script to automatically attach, check, and mount an encrypted partition, but for security reasons the script should not contain the gbde(8) password. Instead, it is recommended that such scripts be run manually while providing the password via the console or ssh(1).

As an alternative, an rc.d script is provided. Arguments for this script can be passed via rc.conf(5), for example:


This will require that the gbde passphrase be entered at boot time. After typing the correct passphrase, the gbde encrypted partition will be mounted automatically. This can be very useful when using gbde on notebooks. Cryptographic Protections Employed by gbde

gbde(8) encrypts the sector payload using 128-bit AES in CBC mode. Each sector on the disk is encrypted with a different AES key. For more information on gbde's cryptographic design, including how the sector keys are derived from the user-supplied passphrase, see gbde(4). Compatibility Issues

sysinstall(8) is incompatible with gbde-encrypted devices. All *.bde devices must be detached from the kernel before starting sysinstall(8) or it will crash during its initial probing for devices. To detach the encrypted device used in our example, use the following command:

# gbde detach /dev/ad4s1c

Also note that, as vinum(4) does not use the geom(4) subsystem, you cannot use gbde with vinum volumes.

19.16.2 Disk Encryption with geli

Contributed by Daniel Gerzo.

An alternative cryptographic GEOM class is available - geli. It is currently being developed by Pawel Jakub Dawidek . The geli utility is different to gbde; it offers different features and uses a different scheme for doing cryptographic work.

The most important features of geli(8) are:

More geli features can be found in the geli(8) manual page.

The next steps will describe how to enable support for geli in the FreeBSD kernel and will explain how to create and use a geli encryption provider.

Super-user privileges will be required since modifications to the kernel are necessary.

  1. Adding geli Support to the Kernel

    Add the following lines to the kernel configuration file:

    options GEOM_ELI
    device crypto

    Rebuild the kernel as described in Chapter 9.

    Alternatively, the geli module can be loaded at boot time. Add the following line to the /boot/loader.conf:


    geli(8) should now be supported by the kernel.

  2. Generating the Master Key

    The following example will describe how to generate a key file, which will be used as part of the Master Key for the encrypted provider mounted under /private. The key file will provide some random data used to encrypt the Master Key. The Master Key will be protected by a passphrase as well. Provider's sector size will be 4kB big. Furthermore, the discussion will describe how to attach the geli provider, create a file system on it, how to mount it, how to work with it, and finally how to detach it.

    It is recommended to use a bigger sector size (like 4kB) for better performance.

    The Master Key will be protected with a passphrase and the data source for key file will be /dev/random. The sector size of /dev/da2.eli, which we call provider, will be 4kB.

    # dd if=/dev/random of=/root/da2.key bs=64 count=1
    # geli init -s 4096 -K /root/da2.key /dev/da2
    Enter new passphrase:
    Reenter new passphrase:

    It is not mandatory that both a passphrase and a key file are used; either method of securing the Master Key can be used in isolation.

    If key file is given as “-”, standard input will be used. This example shows how more than one key file can be used.

    # cat keyfile1 keyfile2 keyfile3 | geli init -K - /dev/da2
  3. Attaching the Provider with the Generated Key

    # geli attach -k /root/da2.key /dev/da2
    Enter passphrase:

    The new plaintext device will be named /dev/da2.eli.

    # ls /dev/da2*
    /dev/da2  /dev/da2.eli
  4. Creating the New File System

    # dd if=/dev/random of=/dev/da2.eli bs=1m
    # newfs /dev/da2.eli
    # mount /dev/da2.eli /private

    The encrypted file system should be visible to df(1) and be available for use now:

    # df -H
    Filesystem     Size   Used  Avail Capacity  Mounted on
    /dev/ad0s1a    248M    89M   139M    38%    /
    /devfs         1.0K   1.0K     0B   100%    /dev
    /dev/ad0s1f    7.7G   2.3G   4.9G    32%    /usr
    /dev/ad0s1d    989M   1.5M   909M     0%    /tmp
    /dev/ad0s1e    3.9G   1.3G   2.3G    35%    /var
    /dev/da2.eli   150G   4.1K   138G     0%    /private
  5. Unmounting and Detaching the Provider

    Once the work on the encrypted partition is done, and the /private partition is no longer needed, it is prudent to consider unmounting and detaching the geli encrypted partition from the kernel.

    # umount /private
    # geli detach da2.eli

More information about the use of geli(8) can be found in the manual page. Using the geli rc.d Script

geli comes with a rc.d script which can be used to simplify the usage of geli. An example of configuring geli through rc.conf(5) follows:

geli_da2_flags="-p -k /root/da2.key"

This will configure /dev/da2 as a geli provider of which the Master Key file is located in /root/da2.key, and geli will not use a passphrase when attaching the provider (note that this can only be used if -P was given during the geli init phase). The system will detach the geli provider from the kernel before the system shuts down.

More information about configuring rc.d is provided in the rc.d section of the Handbook.



For tips on how to select a secure passphrase that is easy to remember, see the Diceware Passphrase website.