GNU/Linux Crypto: Disks

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series GNU/Linux Crypto.

GnuPG provides us with a means to securely encrypt individual files on a filesystem, but for really high-security information or environments, it may be appropriate to encrypt an entire disk, to mitigate problems such as caching sensitive files in plaintext. The GNU/Linux kernel includes its own disk encryption solution in the kernel, dm-crypt. This can be leveraged with a low-end tool called cryptsetup, or more easily with LUKS, the Linux Unified Key Setup, implementing strong cryptography with passphrases or keyfiles.

In this example, we’ll demonstrate how this can work to encrypt a USB drive, which is a good method for securely storing really sensitive data such as PGP master keys that’s only needed occasionally, rather than leaving it always mounted on a networked device. Be aware that this erases any existing files on the drive.


The cryptographic tools used by dm-crypt and LUKS are built-in to Linux kernels after 2.6, but you may have to install a package to get access to the cryptsetup frontend. On Debian-derived systems, it’s available in cryptsetup:

# apt-get install cryptsetup

On RPM-based systems like Fedora or CentOS, the package has the same name, cryptsetup:

# yum install cryptsetup

Creating the volume

After identifying the block device on which we want the encrypted filesystem, for example /dev/sdc1, we can erase any existing contents using a call to wipefs:

# wipefs -a /dev/sdc1

Alternatively, we can zero out the whole disk, if we want to completely overwrite any trace of the data previously on the disk; this can take a long time for large volumes:

# cat /dev/zero >/dev/sdc1

If you don’t have a USB drive to hand, but would still like to try this out, you can use a loop block device in a file. For example, to create a 100MB loop device:

# dd if=/dev/zero of=/loopdev bs=1k count=102400
102400+0 records in
102400+0 records out
104857600 bytes (105 MB) copied, 0.331452 s, 316 MB/s
# losetup -f
# losetup /dev/loop0 /loopdev

You can then follow the rest of this guide using /dev/loop0 as the raw block device in place of /dev/sdc1. In the above output, losetup -f returns the first available loop device for use.

Setting up a LUKS container on the block device is then done as follows, providing a passphrase of decent strength; as always, the longer the better. Ideally, you should not use the same passphrase as your GnuPG or SSH keys.

# cryptsetup luksFormat /dev/sdc1

This will overwrite data on /dev/sdc1 irrevocably.

Are you sure? (Type uppercase yes): YES
Enter passphrase:
Verify passphrase:

This creates an abstracted encryption container on the disk, which can be opened by providing the appropriate passphrase. A virtual mapped device is then provided that encrypts all data written to it transparently, with the encrypted data written to the disk.

Using the mapped device

We can open the mapped device using cryptsetup luksOpen, which will prompt us for the passphrase:

# cryptsetup luksOpen /dev/sdc1 secret

The last argument here is the filename for the block device to appear under /dev/mapper; this example provides /dev/mapper/secret.

With this done, the block device on /dev/mapper/secret can now be used in the same way as any other block device; all of the disk operations are abstracted through encryption operations. You’ll probably want to create a filesystem on it; in this case, I’m creating an ext4 filesystem:

# mkfs.ext4 /dev/mapper/secret
mke2fs 1.42.8 (20-Jun-2013)
Filesystem label=
OS type: Linux
Block size=1024 (log=0)
Fragment size=1024 (log=0)
Stride=0 blocks, Stripe width=0 blocks
25168 inodes, 100352 blocks
5017 blocks (5.00%) reserved for the super user
First data block=1
Maximum filesystem blocks=67371008
13 block groups
8192 blocks per group, 8192 fragments per group
1936 inodes per group
Superblock backups stored on blocks:
        8193, 24577, 40961, 57345, 73729

Allocating group tables: done
Writing inode tables: done
Creating journal (4096 blocks): done
Writing superblocks and filesystem accounting information: done

We can then mount the device as normal, and data put into the newly created filesytem will be transparently encrypted:

# mkdir -p /mnt/secret
# mount /dev/mapper/secret /mnt/secret

For example, we could store a private GnuPG key on it:

# cp -prv /home/tom/.gnupg/secring.gpg /mnt/secret

Information about the device

We can get some information about the LUKS container and the specifics of its encryption using luksDump on the underlying block device. This shows us the encryption method used, in this case aes-xts-plain64.

# cryptsetup luksDump /dev/sdc1
LUKS header information for /dev/sdc1

Version:        1
Cipher name:    aes
Cipher mode:    xts-plain64
Hash spec:      sha1
Payload offset: 4096
MK bits:        256
MK digest:      87 6d 08 59 b2 f0 c6 6e ca ec 5f 72 2c e0 35 33 c2 9e cb 8e
MK salt:        7f a5 38 4c 14 85 61 cb 6c 22 65 48 87 21 60 8f
                fa 40 2a ab ae 7d cc df c9 9b a4 e3 3c 64 b6 bb
MK iterations:  49375
UUID:           f4e5f28c-3b34-4003-9bcd-dbb2352042ba

Key Slot 0: ENABLED
        Iterations:             197530
        Salt:                   2d 57 f6 2b 44 a6 61 ee d6 ee e4 7d 64 f0 71 d6
                                55 16 09 83 b4 f0 94 ca 19 17 11 a9 34 84 02 96
        Key material offset:    8
        AF stripes:             4000
Key Slot 1: DISABLED
Key Slot 2: DISABLED
Key Slot 3: DISABLED
Key Slot 4: DISABLED
Key Slot 5: DISABLED
Key Slot 6: DISABLED
Key Slot 7: DISABLED

Unmounting the device

When finished with the data on the device, we should both unmount any filesystem on it, and also close the mapped device so that the passphrase is required to re-open it:

# umount /mnt/secret
# cryptsetup luksClose /dev/mapper/secret

If the data is a removable device, you should also consider physically removing the media from the machine and placing it in some secure location.

This post only scratches the surface of LUKS functionality; many more things are possible with the system, including automatic mounting of encrypted filesystems and the use of stored keyfiles instead of typed passphrases. The FAQ for cryptsetup contains a great deal of information, including some treatment of data recovery, and the Arch Wiki has an exhaustive page on various ways of using LUKS securely.