Whole Disk or Partition Encryption

The best way to protect against data tampering or unintended disclosure is to implement one of the many whole disk or partition encryption methodologies available to Linux systems. This entails encrypting the entire contents of the hard drive, or partition, using a cryptographic encryption algorithm.

By scrambling all data on the disk with a key of suitable length and using a password of sufficient complexity, the data can be neither read nor modified without the encryption key. In order to decrypt the data and/or boot the drive, the password must be entered on startup. Once the password or key is applied, the machine functions normally and all the data is readable. Before the password is entered and the drive is decrypted, any attempt to modify the data will render all data on the drive corrupt and unusable.

However, this technology is not a panacea, and it does have its drawbacks. As stated earlier, once the password has been entered, the machine boots normally and all data is decrypted. This means two things:

• Data is unencrypted to all local and remote users who have the ability to access the system while it is running.

• Someone must be present to enter the password when the machine boots or when access is needed. Otherwise, it needs to have some kind of automatic key management system in place, which has its own set of issues.

Encryption technology is very effective for providing maximum protection for data at rest. But it hinders the ability to perform a remote reboot (unless, of course, the machine is plugged into an IP-based KVM or similar technology), and it provides no security for data once the machine is live.

Many tools are available for performing whole disk or partition encryption. Encrypting partitions is easiest when a partition is created. Most disk management utilities, such as Yast in Suse, provide options for encrypting partitions when they are created (see Figure 4-2). These partitions can only be accessed if the respective password is entered (see Figure 4-3).

However, using Yast, by default, only allows encryption of non-system partitions. To encrypt a system partition, kernel patches and other configurations must be made. Following is a link to an excellent How-To by David Braun, detailing the steps to set up an entire encrypted Linux installation from scratch in the 2.4 kernel:


Additionally, Boyd Waters continued David Braun's work, but using the 2.6 kernel, and wrote another excellent white paper. This white paper can be accessed at the following link:


Truecrypt (http://www.truecrypt.org/) and BestCrypt (http://www.jetico.com) provide encrypted volumes for Linux in a different way. These utilities store their data in files that are mountable volumes. Once these volumes are mounted, they appear like

Figure 4-2 Creating encrypted partitions

partitions; otherwise, they are simply files and can be easily backed up or moved, just like any other file.

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