Monthly Archives: March 2015

Using TPM as a source of randomness entropy

Lencois_Maranhenses_7-x256A headless server by definition has no input devices such as a keyboard or a mouse which provides a great deal of external randomness to the system. Thus, on such a server, even if using rotational hard disks, it can be difficult to avoid the depletion of the Linux kernel’s random entropy pool. A simplified view of this situation is if the entropy pool is deemed too low, one of the “dices” which generates random numbers is getting biased.  This is can be even more exacerbate on server hosted in virtual machines, but this article won’t help you in this case.

Update 2015-08-24: the article was updated to provide some more information on TPM and commands adapted to the new systemd-based Ubuntu 15.04 and newer. When marked, use either the classic commands from Ubuntu 14.04 LTS and older or the newer ones.

The level of the kernel entropy pool can be checked with the following command:

$ echo $(cat /proc/sys/kernel/random/entropy_avail)/$(cat /proc/sys/kernel/random/poolsize)

(Note depending of the workload of your server the above result could be considered adequate or not)

What means a depleted entropy pool? It means that any call to /dev/random would be blocking until enough entropy is available. A blocking call is not usually wished, it means the application could be considered frozen until the call is freed. On the other side, calls to /dev/urandom would not be blocking in such situation, but there is a higher risk that the randomness quality of the output decreases. Such a higher risk could mean giving a higher chance for an attacker to predict your next dice roll. This could be exploitable or not and it is hard to tell, at least for me. Therefore, I tend to try avoiding having a depleted entropy pool especially for certain workload.

There are several mechanism to provide randomness sources to the entropy pool. The haveged daemon uses some CPU clock timers variation to achieve that, but it is highly dependant of the CPU being used. Other approaches are using sound cards, etc. And finally there are hardware random number generators (RNG). In my previous article, I talked briefly about the hardware RNG from the Raspberry Pi. In this article, I will present another hardware RNG which is available in many computers and servers: Trusted Platform Module (TPM).


I found the name somewhat marketing, and I’m not even sure we should trust it that much. But we will activate it only to provide a new source of entropy and nothing more. I would advise to use other source of entropy as well. Anyway, if interested the following paragraphs are describing how to achieve this, and if you decide to implement them, be reminded that I give no warranty that it will work for you nor that it won’t break things. I can only guarantee you that it worked on my machine running Ubuntu 14.04.2 LTS.

Let’s install the necessary tools and deactivate the main services (the tools launch a daemon which we don’t want to use as we will use rngd to get and verify the randomness of the TPM RNG before feeding the entropy pool).

Ubuntu 14.04 LTS

$ sudo apt install tpm-tools
$ sudo update-rc.d trousers disable
$ sudo service trousers stop

Ubuntu 15.04 and newer

$ sudo apt install tpm-tools
$ sudo systemctl stop trousers.service
$ sudo systemctl disable trousers.service

Then, you will need to go into the BIOS/EFI settings of your computer/server and activate TPM, and possibly clear the ownership of the TPM if it happened to be owned by someone else. Of course, don’t do that if it is not your computer.

I found out that my particular BIOS option only allow clearing from the BIOS settings. Trying to do so from the OS results in the following:

$ sudo tpm_clear --force
Tspi_TPM_ClearOwner failed: 0x0000002d - layer=tpm, code=002d (45), Bad physical presence value

I also found out that my particular BIOS when clearing the ownership, deletes also the Endorsement Key (EK). When I was trying to take ownership of the TPM device (see further) I was getting the following error:

$ sudo tpm_takeownership
Tspi_TPM_TakeOwnership failed: 0x00000023 - layer=tpm, code=0023 (35), No EK

So I had to do an extra step, to generate a new EK:

$ sudo tpm_createek

After having creating a new EK, I was able to successfully take ownership of the TPM device.

$ sudo tpm_takeownership
Enter owner password:
Confirm password:
Enter SRK password:
Confirm password:
tpm_takeownership succeeded

Once all this is done, we are ready to load the TPM RNG kernel module and launch the user space tool that will use this source to feed the Linux kernel entropy pool. The user space tool are the rng-tools suite (with the rngd daemon).

Load the kernel module (to load it permanently add tpm_rng as a new line to /etc/modules):

$ sudo modprobe tpm_rng

And then install the user space tool.

$ sudo apt install rng-tools

The default configuration should be good enough. But you can check it by editing the file /etc/default/rng-tools. The default settings for rngd are to not fill more than half of the pool. I don’t advise to set it to higher, unless you really trust blindly those TPM chips. If you have installed the tool, it should already be running but if you modified the default settings then a restart is necessary.

Ubuntu 14.04 LTS

$ sudo service rng-tools restart

Ubuntu 15.04 and newer

$ sudo systemctl restart

Now you can check again the available entropy with the command that I gave at the beginning of this post.

Installing Linux on Raspberry Pi – The Easy Way

As I announced, I got a Raspberry Pi 2 Model B and although I did not get much time to play yet with it, it was just an excuse to get back to programming and a little computer science fun.

Anyway, I’ve installed Raspbian on it and did a few configurations which I think are worthy to share with others. I’m not going to describe a step-by-step to install a Linux distribution on your Pi, I recommend trying NOOBS and check the good documentation from the Raspberry Pi Foundation. With this setup you can choose during the installation process which Linux distribution to install.

That’s what I did as a warm-up and a quick way to get an up-and-running Pi.

Note that the Raspberry Pi 2 has a new CPU (ARMv7) which is not yet fully exploited by most distribution targeted at the Raspberry Pi ecosystem (with the exception of the Linux kernel). There is one exception: Snappy Ubuntu Core but it is yet alpha. However it should be possible to install most standard Linux distribution that are supporting ARMv7 instructions set, however this is an interesting exercise which I did not perform (yet).

Anyway, using the NOOBS installation or any of the images provided for SD Card has several implication in terms of security. Here is what I recommend to do after the first boot.

Changing password and locking root

If you use the Raspbian installation, then you have one user account `pi’. If you haven’t changed the password for this user during installation, then better do it now. Once connected as `pi’ do:

$ passwd

And enter and then confirm the password you want to use.

With Raspbian, the `pi’ user has administrator’s rights. You can call sudo to perform system changes. If you are comfortable with that, then simply lock the root account:

$ sudo passwd -dl root

Or if you simply want to give a password of your own and use root:

$ sudo passwd root

Getting some Entropy

I am preparing a more detail article on this topic, so for now I am only going to give some background and the commands to increase the sources of entropy. Entropy is important, you need sufficient entropy (which your Linux kernel can gather for you) to be able to generate good pseudo-random numbers. Those numbers are used by many cryptographic services, such as generating SSH keys or SSL/TLS certificates.

The problem with embedded devices such as the Raspberry Pi (especially if you run it headless like I do) is that there aren’t many sources of entropy available to the kernel, especially at boot time.

The Raspberry Pi has an integrated hardware random number generator (HW RNG) which Linux can use to feed its entropy pool. The implication of using such HW RNG is debatable and I will discuss it in the coming article. But here is how to activate it.

First of all, load the kernel module (aka driver) for the HW RNG (the Raspberry Pi 2 can use the same kernel module as the Raspberry Pi 1 models). The Linux way of doing it is via modprobe:

$ sudo modprobe bcm2708-rng

If it worked a new device should be now available /dev/hwrng and the following should be visible in the system messages:

$ dmesg | tail -1
[ 133.787336] bcm2708_rng_init=bbafe000

To make the change permanent, on any Linux system you simply load the module in the /etc/modules file by adding a new line with bcm2708_rng (see next command). Or you can use the Raspberry Pi firmware Device Tree (DT) overlays (see below).

$ sudo bash -c 'echo bcm2708_rng >> /etc/modules'

Now install the rng-tools (the service should be automatically activated and started, default configuration is fine, but you can tweak/amend it in /etc/default/rng-tools)

$ sudo apt-get install rng-tools

After awhile you can check the level of entropy in your pool and some stats on the rng-tools service:

$ echo $(cat /proc/sys/kernel/random/entropy_avail)/$(cat /proc/sys/kernel/random/poolsize)                                 
$ sudo pkill -USR1 rngd; tail -15 /var/log/syslog
rngd[7231]: stats: bits received from HRNG source: 100064
rngd[7231]: stats: bits sent to kernel pool: 40512
rngd[7231]: stats: entropy added to kernel pool: 40512
rngd[7231]: stats: FIPS 140-2 successes: 5
rngd[7231]: stats: FIPS 140-2 failures: 0
rngd[7231]: stats: FIPS 140-2(2001-10-10) Monobit: 0
rngd[7231]: stats: FIPS 140-2(2001-10-10) Poker: 0
rngd[7231]: stats: FIPS 140-2(2001-10-10) Runs: 0
rngd[7231]: stats: FIPS 140-2(2001-10-10) Long run: 0
rngd[7231]: stats: FIPS 140-2(2001-10-10) Continuous run: 0
rngd[7231]: stats: HRNG source speed: (min=824.382; avg=1022.108; max=1126.435)Kibits/s
rngd[7231]: stats: FIPS tests speed: (min=6.459; avg=8.161; max=9.872)Mibits/s
rngd[7231]: stats: Lowest ready-buffers level: 2
rngd[7231]: stats: Entropy starvations: 0
rngd[7231]: stats: Time spent starving for entropy: (min=0; avg=0.000; max=0)us

Securing SSH – the basic

I run my Pi headless for the moment. So after the first boot, I went into the advanced configuration of the raspi-config and activated SSH daemon. I’m not here going to describe how to properly secure the SSHd daemon, which can be a topic for a future article. I’m only going to focus on one topic which is SSH host keys.

SSH host keys are the means for a user connecting to a remote server to verify the authenticity of the server. That the sort of message you see the first time you connect to an SSH server:

$ ssh pi@raspberrypi
The authenticity of host 'raspberrypi (' can't be established.
ECDSA key fingerprint is 42:3d:4f:b7:0b:4b:62:11:47:28:cc:86:76:0c:ac:24.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)?

If an attacker tries to spoof your SSH server, on connection you will get this message:

$ ssh pi@raspberrypi
Someone could be eavesdropping on you right now (man-in-the-middle attack)!
It is also possible that a host key has just been changed.
The fingerprint for the ECDSA key sent by the remote host is
Please contact your system administrator.
Add correct host key in /home/pithagore/.ssh/known_hosts to get rid of this message.
Offending ECDSA key in /home/pithagore/.ssh/known_hosts:3
  remove with: ssh-keygen -f "/home/pithagore/.ssh/known_hosts" -R raspberrypi
ECDSA host key for raspberrypi has changed and you have requested strict checking.
Host key verification failed.

So this is all good, but the problem with these host keys is that you cannot really trust the one installed by default. They could be the same as the one from the image you downloaded and flashed on your SD Card, and so would be similar to all other persons installing the same image. Another problem is that they could have been generated at a point in the installation where not enough entropy was gathered by the kernel to be able to provide non-predictable random numbers. Therefore someone could use this to generate new host keys that would match the one on your Raspberry Pi.

Now that in the earlier chapter we added good source to feed the entropy pool, we can regenerate better host keys. First get rid off the previous ones:

$ sudo rm /etc/ssh/ssh_host_*key{,.pub}

Then generate new ones with one of the 3 possibilities:

  • Automatic configuration using dpkg
$ sudo dpkg-reconfigure openssh-server 
Creating SSH2 RSA key; this may take some time ...
Creating SSH2 ECDSA key; this may take some time ...
Restarting OpenBSD Secure Shell server: sshd.
  • Automatic configuration using ssh-keygen
$ sudo ssh-keygen -A
$ sudo service ssh restart
  • Manual configuration
$ sudo ssh-keygen -t rsa -b 4096 -N "" -f /etc/ssh/ssh_host_rsa_key
$ sudo ssh-keygen -t ecdsa -b 521 -N "" -f /etc/ssh/ssh_host_ecdsa_key
$ sudo service ssh restart

Now if you want to print the fingerprint of any of your host keys to make sure of the authenticity of the server you are connecting to (should only be needed the first time your client connects to your server):

$ ssh-keygen -l -f