Updated: 3 minutes to read

This section just explains why someone might want to use full disk encryption based on LUKS2 and what general difficulties a user might encounter when setting up LUKS2. Readers who are familiar with these concepts may feel free to skip this section.

Motivation of Full Disk Encryption

Disk encryption is pivotal to protection of sensitive data. Basic system authentication mechanisms like login passwords are not adequate for data protection because adversaries can bypass them by booting up another operating system in their own external drive and then accessing the file system from there. Even if a BIOS password is used to prevent booting from an external drive, adversaries with access to the computer’s internals can still remove the motherboard battery to reset the password or just plug the internal drive storing the data into another computer to access it. Disk encryption effectively defends against these attacks because adversaries always need to unlock the disk regardless of which operating system or computer they use to access it. When the algorithms and encryption keys are both secure, it is virtually impossible for someone without a key to unlock the disk.

Full disk encryption goes beyond the ordinary disk encryption by protecting the operating system’s files as well as user data. Certain types of OS files are common attack surfaces, like SSH host keys under /etc/ssh, Sudo’s configuration file under /etc/sudoers.d, Linux kernel’s files at /boot and /lib/modules, etc. If they are encrypted too, adversaries cannot tamper with them to inject malicious configuration or executable code, and the system integrity is thus better protected. For example, they cannot replace the kernel image or user-space executable programs with a modified copy containing dangerous code because those system files are encrypted too under full disk encryption.

Benefits and Complications of LUKS2

Perhaps the best disk encryption solution available on Linux is LUKS2 (Linux Unified Key Setup version 2). Compared to LUKS1 – the previous version, LUKS2 is more resilient to header corruption and still provides modest protection when a weak passphrase is used. These enhancements are realized by use of a second copy of the LUKS header and Argon2id.

However, LUKS2 full disk encryption is not necessarily easy to set up:

  • On Gentoo, where many software packages’ features can be customized via USE flags, the USE flags related to LUKS must be enabled.
  • Configuring the GRUB bootloader for LUKS2 with Argon2id is tricky because as of version 2.12, GRUB still does not support Argon2id.
  • The boot process might prompt for the passphrase twice: GRUB asks for it first, and the init system will ask for it again because GRUB cannot pass the passphrase or the unlocked state to the init system.