Arch Linux Setup with Disk Encryption

Using dm-crypt, LUKS, and the systemd Boot Loader

Patrick Bucher

2020-09-26

I've been using Arch Linux since 2016. I got to understand the system better since then, and installing Arch nowadays is rather a strain on my fingers than on my brain. I automated my personal setup procedure to some extent with a couple of shell scripts, which I'm adjusting as time goes and hardware changes. I collect those scripts and setup instructions in a GitHub repo.

Even though I've often taken my laptop with me, especially for university, I never made the effort to encrypt my disk or a single partition thereon. Sensitive data, such as passwords, are stored encrypted using GPG. And my GPG private key is protected with a strong passphrase; so strong, that I mistype it once in a while.

Having stored SSH keys on my laptop, however, is a risk in terms of data protection. I do not protect most of my SSH keys with passwords. (Not having to use passwords is one of the conveniences SSH gives you, after all.) But some of those SSH keys are gateways to quite some important data, and therefore I need to re-consider my security practices.

Protecting SSH keys with a passphrase is very inconvenient, especially if you do a lot of git push operations via SSH. It's possible to use a password protected SSH key for git only, but having to deal with multiple SSH keys is inconvenient, too. (My rule is to use one SSH key per client machine.) So encrypting the hard disk or at least some partitions of it might be the better solution, because it only requires me to enter an additional password once during startup, which is once or twice a day.

dm-crypt and LUKS

The Arch wiki provides an article on how to encrypt an entire system. Such a setup is based on LUKS (Linux Unified Key Setup), a disk encryption specification, and dm-crypt, the Linux kernel's device mapper for encrypted devices.

The wiki mentions different scenarios for disk encryption. The first option, LUKS on a partition, is very simple, but not ideal for me, because I'm not just using one giant root partition, but separate partitions for /var, /tmp and /home. With this setup, a process filling up my /var/log directory won't prevent me from writing to /home or the root partition, which might be necessary to deal with the issue.

One could argue that it's sufficient to just encrypt the /home partition, which contains the most sensitive data, after all. However, it's possible that some program logs sensitive data to /var/log or stores it under /opt, so that an encrypted /home partition won't prevent sensitive data from being leaked. An unencrypted root partition also makes it possible to tamper programs, so that data is leaked later.

It's also possible to encrypt the partitions mentioned seperately, which would require me to enter my password upon booting for every single partition. This is highly impractical, and therefore I won't do it that way.

The second option, LVM on LUKS, is a better fit for my purpose. Here, LUKS provides one single block device, on top of which the encrypted partitions are created. The other, arguably more sophisticated scenarios, are mostly useful when dealing with multiple disks, or if an encrypted boot partition is required. So let's stick to scenario two: LVM on LUKS.

Partitioning

My Lenovo Thinkpad X1 has a SSD with roughly 475 GB and 16 GB memory. This is important when considering partition sizes. I usually create my partitions as follows:

  1. A 256 MB /boot partition for the bootloader (FAT 32).
  2. A 16 GB (the size of my memory) swap partition.
  3. A 128 GB / (root) partition (ext4).
  4. A 64 GB /var partition (ext4).
  5. A 8 GB /tmp partition (ext4).
  6. And a /home partition with the remainder of the space, i.e. roughly 260 GB in my case (ext4).

The choice of partition sizes is subject to debate. Some prefer to have a swap partition with twice the size of the physical memory. Some prefer to make the root, /var/, and /tmp partitions smaller or bigger. But the above partitioning scheme was never the cause of any trouble for me, so far.

With those decisions taken, let's proceed to the setup.

Setup Procedure

So let's go through the setup step by step.

Prepare the Installation Medium

First, I download the latest Arch amd64 image via BitTorrent Magnet link from the download page and verify its checksum against the one on the website:

$ sha1sum archlinux-2020.09.01-x86_64.iso
95ebacd83098b190e8f30cc28d8c57af0d0088a0

Then I copy the image on a USB dongle with a capacity of at least 700 MB:

$ sudo dd if=archlinux-2020.09.01-x86_64.iso of=/dev/sda bs=4M
$ sync

Then I unplug my USB dongle and plug it into the Thinkpad X1 I'd like to setup, and boot from it (UEFI boot). Once the installation environment is loaded, let's continue with the setup.

My Thinkpad X1 has a US keyboard, which I prefer to use nowadays. However, it's possible to change the keyboard layout as follows (for Swiss German), if wanted:

# loadkeys de_CH-latin1

Next, I establish a WiFi connection with frzbxpdb5 being my network SSID, wlan0 being my WiFi device, and [topsecret] being my password:

# iwctl --passphrase '[topsecret]' station wlan0 connect frzbxpdb5

Let's continue with the partitioning of the disk.

Partitioning

In order to partition the hard disk, one first needs to know the device name, which can be found using lsblk:

# lsblk

This lists sda, the USB dongle, and nvme0n1, the 475 GB solid state drive aforementioned.

Filling the Disk with Junk Data

As a first step, the disk shall be overwritten with random data. Even though I haven't used this laptop productively yet, and so there's no sensitive data stored on it, it is still a good practice to fill it up once with random data. This makes it harder for an attacker to distinguish between encrypted data and random junk.

# shred --random-source=/dev/urandom --iterations=1 /dev/nvme0n1

In my case, using only one single iteration is sufficient. If there was actual data stored on the disk, multiple iterations should be considered.

Creating a Boot Partition

Next, I create a new GPT partition scheme on that disk:

# parted -s /dev/nvme0n1 mklabel gpt

I'm not going to encrypt my boot partition, so I create it as I do for a regular setup without encryption (as a FAT 32 boot partition, that is):

# parted -s /dev/nvme0n1 mkpart boot fat32 1MiB 257MiB
# parted -s /dev/nvme0n1 set 1 esp on
# mkfs.fat -F 32 /dev/nvme0n1p1

I leave a gap of 1 MB at the beginning, so no matter what block size my SSD uses, the boot partition will always be properly aligned. The esp flag identifies the partition as a UEFI system partition.

Creating a Partition for Encryption

Now comes the crucial part. All the encrypted data is put into a single big partition (nvmen1p2), taking up all of the remaining disk space, which is then partitioned using a volume manager:

# parted -s /dev/nvme0n1 mkpart cryptlvm 257MiB '100%'

The encryption is set up on this partition:

# cryptsetup luksFormat /dev/nvme0n1p2

Enter "YES" if asked for confirmation, and pick a strong passphrase to be entered twice. (At this point, remember exactly which keyboard layout you're on!).

To further work with the encrypted partition, let's open it, which requires to enter the password chosen before:

# cryptsestup open /dev/nvme0n1p2 cryptlvm

Now a physical volume for the volume mapping needs to be created:

# pvcreate /dev/mapper/cryptlvm

The partitions are going to be managed in a volume group, which I simply call volgrp for the sake of brevity:

# vgcreate volgrp /dev/mapper/cryptlvm

Now everything is set up to create the remaining, i.e. the encrypted partitions.

Creating the Remaining Partitions

Those are created using lvcreate by setting a size (-L/-l parameter) and a name (-n parameter):

# lvcreate -L 16G volgrp -n swap
# lvcreate -L 128G volgrp -n root
# lvcreate -L 64G volgrp -n var
# lvcreate -L 8G volgrp -n tmp
# lvcreate -l '100%FREE' volgrp -n home

Update: As the user fra-san pointed out in a comment on StackExchange, leaving some space open rather than using -l '100%FREE' for the /home partition is useful when partition sizes should be increased later. Shrinking partitions requires to unmount them, whereas growing them can happen with the affected partition still being mounted. (Check out lvresize for details.)

The partitions are going to be formatted using the swap and ext4 format, respectively:

# mkswap /dev/volgrp/swap
# mkfs.ext4 -F /dev/volgrp/root
# mkfs.ext4 -F /dev/volgrp/var
# mkfs.ext4 -F /dev/volgrp/tmp
# mkfs.ext4 -F /dev/volgrp/home

For the actual setup, those partitions (and the /boot partition created before) need to be mounted to /mnt:

# mount /dev/volgrp/root /mnt

# mkdir /mnt/boot
# mount /dev/nvme0n1p1 /mnt/boot

# swapon /dev/volgrp/swap

# mkdir /mnt/var
# mount /dev/volgrp/var /mnt/var

# mkdir /mnt/tmp
# mount /dev/volgrp/tmp /mnt/tmp

# mkdir /mnt/home
# mount /dev/volgrp/home /mnt/home

Now the partitions are ready for a regular bootstrap installation. (Setting up the boot loader will require some more specific instructions to disk encryption later on.)

Bootstrap Installation

Now let's install the base system, together with the lvm2 package:

# pacstrap /mnt base linux linux-firmware lvm2

In order to get the mounting done automatically upon restart, let's save it in the fstab file:

# genfstab -U /mnt >> /mnt/etc/fstab

When this is done, let's switch into the installed environment:

# arch-chroot /mnt

A password needs to be set for the root user:

# passwd

In order to have a WiFi connection after rebooting, let's install a couple of networking packages (some of those specific to my Intel hardware):

# pacman -S iw wpa_supplicant dialog intel-ucode netctl dhcpcd

I set the time zone to Zurich (Europe), update and save the system time:

# ln -sf /usr/share/zoneinfo/Europe/Zurich /etc/localtime
# timedatectl set-ntp true
# hwclock --systohc

For language and locale, I simply use en_US.UTF-8 and en_US-UTF-8 UTF-8, respectively:

# echo 'en_US.UTF-8 UTF-8' >> /etc/locale.gen
# locale-gen
# echo 'LANG=en_US.UTF-8' > /etc/locale.conf

Due to the lack of imagination, I call my laptop simply carbon:

# echo carbon > /etc/hostname

This is a very basic setup. Now let's make sure it can be booted by installing the boot loader:

Configuring the Boot Loader

I've always been using the systemd boot loader on Arch Linux, which is quite simple to configure. First, the computer needs to get a unique id, then the boot loader can be installed into the /boot partition:

# systemd-machine-id-setup
# bootctl --path=/boot install

Now comes the tricky part: The UUID of the boot partition needs to be figured out. blkid lists various partitions, but which one to choose? It's the LUKS partition containing the encrypted volume: /dev/nvme0n1p2. Its UUID can be extracted as follows, and shall be saved into a variable for later use:

# uuid=$(blkid | grep 'crypto_LUKS' | egrep -o ' UUID="[^"]+"')
# uuid=$(echo $uuid | awk -F '=' '{ print $2 }' | tr -d '"')

The first line lists the partitions (blkid), extracts the line with the encrypted partition (grep), and further extracts the part of the line defining the UUID (egrep). Don't forget the space in front of UUID, otherwise the PARTUUID is extracted, too. In the second line, the definition (UUID="abc...") is split at the equal sign, of which the second part ("abc...") is taken using awk. Then the surrounding double quotes are removed with tr. The variable $uuid now contains the UUID of the encrypted partition.

Update: As the user fra-san pointed out, there's an easier way to extract the UUID:

# uuid=$(blkid --match-tag UUID -o value /dev/nvme0n1p2)

Having this information, the entry for the boot loader can be created as follows:

# cat <<EOF >/boot/loader/entries/arch.conf
title   Arch Linux
linux   /vmlinuz-linux
initrd  /initramfs-linux.img
options cryptdevice=UUID=${uuid}:cryptlvm root=/dev/volgrp/root
EOF

Now a simple bootloader configuration needs to be created:

# cat <<EOF >/boot/loader/loader.conf
default arch
timeout 0
editor  0
EOF

Creating the Ramdisk Environment

As mentioned earlier, there are some further adjustments for disk encryptions to be made. Let's open /etc/mkinitcpio.conf and go to the HOOKS definition:

HOOKS=(base udev autodetect modconf block filesystems keyboard fsck)

Which needs to be extended with encrypt and lvm2:

HOOKS=(base udev autodetect modconf block filesystems keyboard fsck encrypt lvm2)

Then the ramdisk environment can be created:

# mkinitcpio -P

Which generated the initramfs-linux.img file referred to from the boot loader entry created before, as well as a fallback initramfs-linux-fallback.img.

Finishing

Now that everything is set up, leave the chroot environment, unmount the new system's partitions, and shut down the computer:

# exit
# umount -R /mnt
# shutdown -h now

After removing the USB dongle, start the system again.

Early in the boot process, you'll be asked to enter the passphrase for /dev/nvme0n1p2. After doing so, the system will boot. If not, you did something wrong in the process, because it's working just fine on my Thinkpad X1 Carbon.

I also had issues getting everything right in the first place, but fortunately got help on the Linux & Unix StackExchange. Thanks to the user frostschutz for pointing out the core issue. The user Cbhihe pointed out that my partition sizes weren't sustainable, so that I adjusted it accordingly for this article.

Conclusion

We set up Arch Linux with encrypted partitions using the variant LUKS on LVM. The system is split up into multiple partitions, which are all encrypted using the same password over one common encrypted volume.

The /boot partition remains unencrypted, which would allow an attacker to tamper with my system boot, and, potentially, with my entire setup. So if my laptop gets lost, there is no 100% guarantee that my system hasn't been manipulated. However, having all the other partitions encrypted makes manipulation or data leaks extremely unlikely.

When my laptop gets stolen or lost for an extended period of time, it is still a good idea to revoke all the SSH and GPG keys. But thanks to encryption, that procedure won't be an act of emergency, but one that could be carefully planned for and executed at a convenient time.

The system set up so far is really just a base installation. In order to work on this computer, further tasks have to be performed, as roughly described in my Arch Setup Notes on GitHub. Maybe I'll write a follow-up article in the future to cover those steps more in detail.