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I realise that similar questions have been asked before regarding the EFI System Partition, but I just cannot seem to get my head around this, or indeed get a direct answer.

When I boot into Linux, my files are protected, albeit in a basic manner, by permissions. The same is true of Windows, and of course most modern O.S.

However, the ESP uses a FAT filesystem, which can easily be mounted, and in Linux' case is mounted, and can therefore be very easily messed with.

Why? Just why? How can this be considered safe? Any user of a system can play with the ESP and do whatever they like. It seems to defeat any and all sensible security measures.

I am aware of Secure Boot and key signing, of course, but that has to be enabled to be useful. Nonetheless the ESP is still FAT and can still be messed with, possibly bricking (to an ordinary end user) the system.

Or am I missing something? I really do feel like I'm the only person not “getting” this at all.

  • 2
    Have you tried mounting it and messing with it as an unprivileged user? – Gaius Nov 10 '19 at 15:30
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    What makes you believe in the first place that the EFI partition is secure against a user with physical access to the machine when secure boot is not used? Or what specific attack vector you ask about - since there is usually no "secure against everything" but only "secure against specific attacks". Also, in Linux and Windows your files are neither protected against someone booting a different system - except when the files or the partition is encrypted. – Steffen Ullrich Nov 10 '19 at 15:46
  • @Gaius I've just told you it's already mounted by default. – Ken Sharp Nov 10 '19 at 15:59
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    @KenSharp that is no way to talk to someone who is trying to help by clarifying the nature of the question. security.stackexchange.com/conduct – multithr3at3d Nov 10 '19 at 18:08
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    @KenSharp, I'm currently not actively moderating, but I figured I would pop in to say please moderate your tone. There is no need for that sort of language and attitude. – Rory Alsop Nov 10 '19 at 21:30
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You said it yourself that files on Linux are protected by DAC-style basic Unix permissions. You also noted that FAT filesystems do not store Unix permissions. So how can Unix permissions help here?

Well, how would the filesystem operate at all without some abstraction for permissions? Instead of looking to the filesystem for permissions, the permissions for the entire filesystem are set at mount time. See this question/answer for details, but the important excerpt comes from mount(8) man:

Mount options for fat

   (Note:  fat  is not a separate filesystem, but a common part of the ms‐
   dos, umsdos and vfat filesystems.)

   uid=value and gid=value
          Set the owner and group of all files.  (Default: the UID and GID
          of the current process.)

So, when /boot/efi (or /efi) is mounted, mount will set the owner and group of all files to root:root, since the mount is being performed by root.

Let's see this in practice. On my system:

~# mount | grep efi
/dev/nvme0n1p1 on /boot/efi type vfat (rw,relatime,fmask=0077,dmask=0077,codepage=437,iocharset=ascii,shortname=mixed,utf8,errors=remount-ro)
~# grep efi /etc/fstab 
UUID=DEAD-BEEF  /boot/efi       vfat    umask=0077      0       1

An explicit UID/GID isn't set, so it will mount as the UID/GID of the calling process. Note the fmask/dmask are set, resulting in permissions being set to 700 for files and directories.

~# ls -al /boot/efi/
total 9
drwx------ 3 root root 4096 Dec 31  1969 .
drwxr-xr-x 5 root root 1024 Nov 10 10:19 ..
drwx------ 4 root root 4096 Nov  7 16:44 EFI

If you were to probe further, you would see that every file and directory under the mountpoint have the same permissions and ownership. If you try to even list the directory contents as an unprivileged user, you obviously get:

nobody@multi3:/tmp$ ls -al /boot/efi
ls: cannot open directory '/boot/efi': Permission denied

So, back to your question:

Why? Just why? How can this be considered safe? Any user of a system can play with the ESP and do whatever they like. It seems to defeat any and all sensible security measures.

It is "safe" because it is protected by DAC; Unix permissions. Only root can make changes. So the assertion that "any user of a system" can make changes is incorrect.

Now, I suppose root could change the mount options to allow mounting it as another user, but this would just be silly. But if your threat model includes an untrusted root user, you've got bigger issues to worry about.

All of this is assuming you are referring to the ESP of the currently running system. Of course, as stated in the comments, the partition could be modified by anybody if mounted within another system.

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