dm-crypt/Drive preparation

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Before encrypting a drive, it is recommended to perform a secure erase by overwriting the entire device with random data. To prevent cryptographic attacks or unwanted file recovery, this data is ideally indistinguishable from data later written by dm-crypt. For a more comprehensive discussion see Data-at-rest encryption#Preparing the disk.

Secure erasure of the drive

In deciding which method to use for secure erasure of a drive, remember that this needs only to be performed once for as long as the drive is continuously used as an encrypted device.

  • Make appropriate backups of valuable data prior to starting!
  • Do not overwrite an SSD with random data if you plan to use TRIM. Unused blocks will be marked as empty after the first TRIM and eventually erased thus undoing your performed actions.
Note: When wiping large amount of data, the process will take several hours to several days to complete.
  • Check that your Advanced Format drives are using the optimal logical sector size before proceeding.
  • The process of filling an encrypted drive can take over a day to complete on a multi-terabyte device. In order not to leave the machine unusable during the operation, it may be worth to do it from a system already installed on another drive, rather than from the live Arch installation system.
  • For SSDs, as a best effort to minimize flash memory cache artifacts, consider performing a SSD memory cell clearing prior to instructions below.

Generic methods

For detailed instructions on how to erase and prepare a drive consult Securely wipe disk.

dm-crypt specific methods

The following two methods are specific for dm-crypt and are mentioned because they are very fast and can be performed after a partition setup too.

The cryptsetup FAQ (item 2.19 "How can I wipe a device with crypto-grade randomness?") mentions a very simple procedure to use an existing dm-crypt-volume to wipe all free space accessible on the underlying block device with random data by acting as a simple pseudorandom number generator. It is also claimed to protect against disclosure of usage patterns. That is because encrypted data is practically indistinguishable from random.

dm-crypt wipe on an empty device or partition

First, create a temporary encrypted container on the partition (using the form sdXY) or complete device (using the form sdX) to be encrypted. It could be worth changing the cipher used from the standard aes-cbc to aes-xts, as it might be significantly faster (check with cryptsetup benchmark):

# cryptsetup open --type plain -d /dev/urandom --sector-size 4096 /dev/block-device to_be_wiped

You can verify that it exists:

# lsblk
sda             8:0    0  1.8T  0 disk
└─to_be_wiped 252:0    0  1.8T  0 crypt

Wipe the container with zeros. A use of if=/dev/urandom is not required as the encryption cipher is used for randomness.

# dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/mapper/to_be_wiped status=progress bs=1M
dd: writing to ‘/dev/mapper/to_be_wiped’: No space left on device
Tip: To perform a check of the operation, zero the partition before creating the wipe container. After the wipe command blockdev --getsize64 /dev/mapper/container can be used to get the exact container size as root. After the container has been closed od can be used to spotcheck whether the wipe overwrote the zeroed sectors. For example, # od -j $((containersize - blocksize)) /dev/nvme0n1 to view the wipe completed to the end.

Finally, close the temporary container:

# cryptsetup close to_be_wiped

When encrypting an entire system, the next step is #Partitioning. If just encrypting a partition, continue dm-crypt/Encrypting a non-root file system#Partition.

dm-crypt wipe free space after installation

Users who did not have time for the wipe procedure before installation, can achieve a similar effect once the encrypted system is booted and the filesystems are mounted. However, consider if the concerned filesystem may have set up reserved space, e.g. for the root user, or another disk quota mechanism, that that may limit the wipe even when performed by the root user: some parts of the underlying block device might not get written to at all.

To execute the wipe, temporarily fill the remaining free space of the partition by writing to a file inside the encrypted container:

# dd if=/dev/zero of=/file/in/container status=progress
dd: writing to ‘/file/in/container’: No space left on device

Sync the cache to disk and then delete the file to reclaim the free space.

# sync
# rm /file/in/container

The above process has to be repeated for every partition blockdevice created and filesystem in it. For example, setting-up LVM on LUKS, the process has to be performed for every logical volume.

dm-crypt wipe free space after installation (via re-encryption)

Alternatively, for users who want to completely wipe free space without re-installation, this can be achieved by re-encrypting LUKS devices. It needs to be performed once per LUKS device. But please note that this process can be slower (e.g ~50MB/s on a desktop HDD).

Wipe LUKS header

A partition using LUKS consists of two parts: the header and the encrypted data. The header contains keys and cryptographic parameters without which it is practically impossible to recover the data. If creating a new partition or decommissioning the drive it may be sufficient to remove that part instead of wiping the whole device. For caveats see the paragraph at the end of this subsection.

Warning: The operation is irreversible, so be careful.

To erase all keys use the following command:

# cryptsetup erase device

Make sure there is no active slots left by invoking:

# cryptsetup luksDump device

Additionally the LUKS header itself may be removed to prevent cryptsetup from detecting it in the future, by invoking wipefs after the keys are erased:

# wipefs -a device

The encrypted data remains in place. As of 2020 there is no known practical way of decrypting the data, but that may change in the future. It is up to the user to weight security and privacy against the time needed to perform a proper wiping of the entire drive.

On some storage media, in particular flash-based, it may be impossible to reliably overwrite data. The LUKS header with keys may remain stored in a location inaccessible to the operating system (e.g. a drive-cache). If that is a concern, ATA Secure Erase must be used. The operation is supposed to erase all blocks on the device, including those not visible to software. See cryptsetup FAQ 5.19 for details.


Note: If you plan to use OPAL hardware encryption and have not previously set an OPAL admin password for the drive, you will need to erase all data on the drive with cryptsetup-erase(8) to be able to create a new OPAL admin password. Follow the instructions in Self-encrypting drives#Secure disk erasure to perform the erase before partitioning.

This section only applies when encrypting an entire system. After the drive(s) has/have been securely overwritten, a proper partitioning scheme will have to be accurately chosen, taking into account the requirements of dm-crypt, and the effects that the various choices will have on the management of the resulting system.

It is important to note from now that in almost every case there has to be a separate partition for /boot that must remain unencrypted, because the bootloader needs to access the /boot directory where it will load the initramfs/encryption modules needed to load the rest of the system (see mkinitcpio for details). If this raises security concerns, see dm-crypt/Specialties#Securing the unencrypted boot partition.

Another important factor to take into account is how the swap area and system suspension will be handled, see dm-crypt/Swap encryption.

Physical partitions

In the simplest case, the encrypted layers can be based directly on the physical partitions; see Partitioning for the methods to create them. Just like in an unencrypted system, a root partition is sufficient, besides another for /boot as noted above. This method allows deciding which partitions to encrypt and which to leave unencrypted, and works the same regardless of the number of disks involved. It will also be possible to add or remove partitions in the future, but resizing a partition will be limited by the size of the disk that is hosting it. Finally note that separate passphrases or keys are required to open each encrypted partition, even though this can be automated during boot using the crypttab file, see Dm-crypt/System configuration#crypttab.

Stacked block devices

If more flexibility is needed, though, dm-crypt can coexist with other stacked block devices like LVM and RAID. The encrypted containers can either reside below or on top of other stacked block devices:

  • If the LVM/RAID devices are created on top of the encrypted layer, it will be possible to add, remove and resize the file systems of the same encrypted partition liberally, and only one key or passphrase will be required for all of them. Since the encrypted layer resides on a physical partition, though, it will not be possible to exploit the ability of LVM and RAID to span multiple disks.
  • If the encrypted layer is created on top of LVM/RAID devices, it will still be possible to reorganize the file systems in the future, but with added complexity, since the encryption layers will have to be adjusted accordingly. Moreover, separate passphrases or keys will be required to open each encrypted device. This, however, is the only choice for systems that need encrypted file systems to span multiple disks.

Btrfs subvolumes

Btrfs's built-in subvolumes feature can be used with dm-crypt, fully replacing the need for LVM if no other file systems are required.

Boot partition (GRUB)

See dm-crypt/Encrypting an entire system#Encrypted boot partition (GRUB).