Tuesday, 03 July 2012 11:40

'Secure' boot: Ubuntu goes one worse than Red Hat

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After Red Hat revealed how it would kowtow to the overlords at Redmond, it was only a matter of time before Canonical would genuflect as well over the issue of secure boot.

But Canonical, which is best known for its Ubuntu GNU/Linux distribution, has come up with a way of getting its distribution to boot on PCs certified for Windows 8 that is even worse than that devised by Red Hat.

For the uninitiated, some months ago, Microsoft announced that all PCs that were certified as capable of running Windows 8 would include the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface. This means that booting would be regulated by means of keys, ostensibly to ensure that no malware can operate at that level.

Red Hat's method of ensuring that such PCs can boot GNU/Linux, announced by its community distribution Fedora, is to sign up to the Microsoft developer program and obtain a key which will be used to sign a "shim" bootloader. This shim would then load the GRUB2 bootloader which will boot the operating system kernel. As the key comes from Microsoft, it will be recognised by most PCs and laptops.

On the x86 platform, there is the option of turning off this regulated boot process which is being called, rather fatuously, secure boot. This came about due to opposition from other companies. But on the ARM platform, secure boot is mandated by Microsoft and there are no exceptions. You pays your money, but you have no choice.

Ubuntu's plan involves having a key which is distribution-specific in the firmware, and also a key vouched for by Microsoft. CDs which are sold or distributed separately from hardware will need Microsoft's key to be present in the firmware to boot while bootloader images from the Canonical website will have Ubuntu's own key.


But GRUB2 does not figure in Ubuntu's method. There will be some other bootloader, under an unspecified licence. Canonical's reasoning is that if some manufacturer were to sell a machine running Ubuntu with secure boot enabled, then if a user wanted to disable it, or run modified software, the Ubuntu specific key would have to be revealed because of the terms of the GRUB2 licence.

The Free Software Foundation has pointed out that this is a fallacy; in such a situation, the hardware distributor would be the entity that has to provide the necessary information so that the buyer can run modified software. But is Canonical listening? I doubt.

In both methods, advocated by Red Hat and Canonical, one is dependent on Microsoft. A convicted monopolist, the company is famous for making little tweaks to things so that competitors' products become unusable. But both Red Hat and Canonical seem comfortable with snuggling under the same blanket as Microsoft.

It is unlikely that Ubuntu will change; the company has a rather mulish approach to suggestions from the community and while it has been at pains to emphasise the community aspect over the commercial, in reality this is mere spin.

The departure from co-operation with the rest of the GNU/Linux community is not unique for Canonical. Its distribution, which would not exist were it not for the excellent work of the Debian GNU/Linux developers, and to which it contributes very little upstream, does not even carry the Linux name. No, it is just plain Ubuntu.

The other better-known distributions like OpenSUSE and Debian are yet to announce their plans for dealing with Microsoft's ruse. But when the billion-dollar outfit, Red Hat, leads the way in paying homage, it would be difficult for community projects to adopt solutions which are from left field.

 

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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