The goal for Mender is to provide a robust and secure software update process. An important part of this is to give the Mender Client the ability to verify that the update comes from a trusted source.
One way of achieving this is to sign the Artifact using a protected private key, which is stored and used on a Signing system. The Mender Client can then verify it using the corresponding public key. If the signature verification check passes, the update is considered to come from a trusted source.
The following diagram shows the high level flow of creating and managing keys and Artifact signatures, which are the essential part of the Artifact signing and verification process.
The process begins with provisioning a device with the public verification key, and configuring the Mender Client
to use the key (with the
ArtifactVerifyKey configuration option). After an image is built, it gets signed by the Signing system.
Although it is convenient and possible to use the Build system as the Signing system, this lowers the security as unauthorized access to the private signing key is made easier for potential attackers (e.g. if the Build system is compromised). The best practice is to only sign Artifacts on some offline system, ideally as a manual operation after careful inspection of the Artifact.
After the Artifact is created and signed it can be uploaded to the Mender Server, where the Mender Client will download it from. During the update installation process, the Mender Client will verify the Artifact using the corresponding public key that it was provisioned with. The Artifact will only be installed if the verification is successful. If Artifacts are not signed or the verification fails, the update process will be aborted and the Mender Client will report an error to the Mender Server.
If the Mender Client is configured to enable signature verification (through the
ArtifactVerifyKey option), it will reject any unsigned Artifacts. This is necessary because otherwise an attacker could simply inject unsigned Artifacts to bypass the signature verification.
The following signing algorithms are supported by the Mender:
In order to sign and later on verify the signature of the Mender Artifact we need to generate a private and public key pair. Please follow the respective section below, depending on the signature algorithm you want to use.
After generating the keys you will have a file
private.key, which is only used by the Signing system, as well as
public.key which you provision all the devices with.
public.key is referred to as
artifact-verify-key.pem when placed on the devices to avoid ambiguity with other keys.
Generating a private RSA key can be done by executing the command below:
openssl genpkey -algorithm RSA -out private.key -pkeyopt rsa_keygen_bits:3072 openssl rsa -in private.key -out private.key
To extract a public key from the private key use following command:
openssl rsa -in private.key -out public.key -pubout
In order to generate a public and private ECDSA key pair use the commands below:
openssl ecparam -genkey -name prime256v1 -out private-and-params.key openssl ec -in private-and-params.key -out private.key openssl ec -in private-and-params.key -pubout -out public.key
public.key files are the private and public keys, respectively.
We use the
mender-artifact tool to create a signed Artifact. Download the
mender-artifact binary for your platform following the links in
There are two ways to sign an Artifact: while creating it with the
command or once already created using the
sign command. We add the
parameter in both cases to specify the private key, which will be used for
creating the signature.
mender-artifact write rootfs-image -t beaglebone -n mender-2.3.0 -f core-image-base-beaglebone.ext4 -k private.key -o artifact-signed.mender
Make sure the Artifact name specified by the
-n parameter in the above command matches the value specified when your file system image was created.
mender-artifact sign artifact.mender -k private.key -o artifact-signed.mender
The latter is typically the command that the Signing system uses to create a
signed Artifact from an unsigned one produced by the build system, or after
modifying an Artifact with
mender-artifact modify command.
After a signed Artifact is created, it can be verified with
mender-artifact as well. To verify the signature, again use the
-k option, but this time with the location of the public verification key.
mender-artifact validate artifact-signed.mender -k public.key
To make it easier to provision your devices with the public verification key and corresponding Mender Client configuration, Mender has integration with the Yocto Project. Please refer to the documentation for Artifact signing and verification keys to see how to include them.
The public verification key should be stored on persistent storage on the device where the Mender client runs, as the key should not change across deployments (except when doing key rotation). By default it is stored on the data partition.
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