User-Empowered Security via encfs

Tuesday 10 April 2007 by Bradley M. Kuhn

One of my biggest worries in using a laptop is that data can suddenly become available to anyone in the world if a laptop is lost or stolen. I was reminded of this during the mainstream media coverage1 of this issue last year.

There's the old security through obscurity perception of running GNU/Linux systems. Proponents of this theory argue that most thieves (or impromptu thieves, who find a lost laptop but decide not to return it to its owner) aren't likely to know how to use a GNU/Linux system, and will probably wipe the drive before selling it or using it. However, with the popularity of Free Software rising, this old standby (which never should have been a standby anyway, of course) doesn't even give an illusion of security anymore.

I have been known as a computer security paranoid in my time, and I keep a rather strict regiment of protocols for my own personal computer security. But, I don't like to inflict new onerous security procedures on the otherwise unwilling. Generally, people will find methods around security procedures when they aren't fully convinced they are necessary, and you're often left with a situation just as bad or worse than when you started implementing your new procedures.

My solution for the lost/stolen laptop security problem was therefore two-fold: (a) education among the userbase about how common it is to have a laptop lost or stolen, and (b) providing a simple user-space mechanism for encrypting sensitive data on the laptop. Since (a) is somewhat obvious, I'll talk about (b) in detail.

I was fortunate that, in parallel, my friend Paul and one of my coworkers discovered how easy it is to use encfs and told me about it. encfs uses the Filesystem in Userspace (FUSE) to store encrypted data right in a user's own home directory. And, it is trivially easy to set up! I used Paul's tutorial myself, but there are many published all over the Internet.

My favorite part of this solution is that rather than an onerous mandated procedure, encfs turns security into user empowerment. My colleague James wrote up a tutorial for our internal Wiki, and I've simply encouraged users to take a look and consider encrypting their confidential data. Even though not everyone has taken it up yet, many already have. When a new security measure requires substantial change in behavior of the user, the measure works best when users are given an opportunity to adopt it at their own pace. FUSE deserves a lot of credit in this regard, since it lets users switch their filesystem to encryption in pieces (unlike other cryptographic filesystems that require some planning ahead). For my part, I've been slowly moving parts of my filesystem into an encrypted area as I move aside old habits gradually.

I should note that this solution isn't completely without cost. First, there is no metadata encryption, but I am really not worried about interlopers finding out how big our nameless files and directories are and who created them (anyway, with an SVN checkout, the interesting metadata is in .svn, so it's encrypted in this case). Second, we've found that I/O intensive file operations take approximately twice as long (both under ext3 and XFS) when using encfs. I haven't moved my email archives to my encrypted area yet because of the latter drawback. However, for all my other sensitive data (confidential text documents, IRC chat logs, financial records, ~/.mozilla, etc.), I don't really notice the slow-down using a 1.6 Ghz CPU with ample free RAM. YMMV.


1 BTW, I'm skeptical about the FBI's claim in that old Washington Post article which states “review of the equipment by computer forensic teams has determined that the data base remains intact and has not been accessed since it was stolen”. I am mostly clueless about computer forensics; however, barring any sort of physical seal on the laptop or hard drive casing, could a forensics expert tell if someone had pulled out the drive, put it in another computer, did a dd if=/dev/hdb of=/dev/hda, and then put it back as it was found?

Posted on Tuesday 10 April 2007 at 16:21 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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#include <std/disclaimer.h>
use Standard::Disclaimer;
from standard import disclaimer
SELECT full_text FROM standard WHERE type = 'disclaimer';

Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own ebb.org with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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Bradley M. Kuhn <bkuhn@ebb.org>