Apt Archive Transparency: debdistdiff & apt-canary

I’ve always found the operation of apt software package repositories to be a mystery. There appears to be a lack of transparency into which people have access to important apt package repositories out there, how the automatic non-human update mechanism is implemented, and what changes are published. I’m thinking of big distributions like Ubuntu and Debian, but also the free GNU/Linux distributions like Trisquel and PureOS that are derived from the more well-known distributions.

As far as I can tell, anyone who has the OpenPGP private key trusted by a apt-based GNU/Linux distribution can sign a modified Release/InRelease file and if my machine somehow downloads that version of the release file, my machine could be made to download and install packages that the distribution didn’t intend me to install. Further, it seems that anyone who has access to the main HTTP server, or any of its mirrors, or is anywhere on the network between them and my machine (when plaintext HTTP is used), can either stall security updates on my machine (on a per-IP basis), or use it to send my machine (again, on a per-IP basis to avoid detection) a modified Release/InRelease file if they had been able to obtain the private signing key for the archive. These are mighty powers that warrant overview.

I’ve always put off learning about the processes to protect the apt infrastructure, mentally filing it under “so many people rely on this infrastructure that enough people are likely to have invested time reviewing and improving these processes”. Simultaneous, I’ve always followed the more free-software friendly Debian-derived distributions such as gNewSense and have run it on some machines. I’ve never put them into serious production use, because the trust issues with their apt package repositories has been a big question mark for me. The “enough people” part of my rationale for deferring this is not convincing. Even the simple question of “is someone updating the apt repository” is not easy to understand on a running gNewSense system. At some point in time the gNewSense cron job to pull in security updates from Debian must have stopped working, and I wouldn’t have had any good mechanism to notice that. Most likely it happened without any public announcement. I’ve recently switched to Trisquel on production machines, and these questions has come back to haunt me.

The situation is unsatisfying and I looked into what could be done to improve it. I could try to understand who are the key people involved in each project, and may even learn what hardware component is used, or what software is involved to update and sign apt repositories. Is the server running non-free software? Proprietary BIOS or NIC firmware? Are the GnuPG private keys on disk? Smartcard? TPM? YubiKey? HSM? Where is the server co-located, and who has access to it? I tried to do a bit of this, and discovered things like Trisquel having a DSA1024 key in its default apt trust store (although for fairness, it seems that apt by default does not trust such signatures). However, I’m not certain understanding this more would scale to securing my machines against attacks on this infrastructure. Even people with the best intentions, and the state of the art hardware and software, will have problems.

To increase my trust in Trisquel I set out to understand how it worked. To make it easier to sort out what the interesting parts of the Trisquel archive to audit further were, I created debdistdiff to produce human readable text output comparing one apt archive with another apt archive. There is a GitLab CI/CD cron job that runs this every day, producing output comparing Trisquel vs Ubuntu and PureOS vs Debian. Working with these output files has made me learn more about how the process works, and I even stumbled upon something that is likely a bug where Trisquel aramo was imported from Ubuntu jammy while it contained a couple of package (e.g., gcc-8, python3.9) that were removed for the final Ubuntu jammy release.

After working on auditing the Trisquel archive manually that way, I realized that whatever I could tell from comparing Trisquel with Ubuntu, it would only be something based on a current snapshot of the archives. Tomorrow it may look completely different. What felt necessary was to audit the differences of the Trisquel archive continously. I was quite happy to have developed debdistdiff for one purpose (comparing two different archives like Trisquel and Ubuntu) and discovered that the tool could be used for another purpose (comparing the Trisquel archive at two different points in time). At this time I realized that I needed a log of all different apt archive metadata to be able to produce an audit log of the differences in time for the archive. I create manually curated git-repositories with the Release/InRelease and the Packages files for each architecture/component of the well-known distributions Trisquel, Ubuntu, Debian and PureOS. Eventually I wrote scripts to automate this, which are now published in the debdistget project.

At this point, one of the early question about per-IP substitution of Release files were lingering in my mind. However with the tooling I now had available, coming up with a way to resolve this was simple! Merely have apt compute a SHA256 checksum of the just downloaded InRelease file, and see if my git repository had the same file. At this point I started reading the Apt source code, and now I had more doubts about the security of my systems than I ever had before. Oh boy how the name Apt has never before felt more… Apt?! Oh well, we must leave some exercises for the students. Eventually I realized I wanted to touch as little of apt code basis as possible, and noticed the SigVerify::CopyAndVerify function called ExecGPGV which called apt-key verify which called GnuPG’s gpgv. By setting Apt::Key::gpgvcommand I could get apt-key verify to call another tool than gpgv. See where I’m going? I thought wrapping this up would now be trivial but for some reason the hash checksum I computed locally never matched what was on my server. I gave up and started working on other things instead.

Today I came back to this idea, and started to debug exactly how the local files looked that I got from apt and how they differed from what I had in my git repositories, that came straight from the apt archives. Eventually I traced this back to SplitClearSignedFile which takes an InRelease file and splits it into two files, probably mimicking the (old?) way of distributing both Release and Release.gpg. So the clearsigned InRelease file is split into one cleartext file (similar to the Release file) and one OpenPGP signature file (similar to the Release.gpg file). But why didn’t the cleartext variant of the InRelease file hash to the same value as the hash of the Release file? Sadly they differ by the final newline.

Having solved this technicality, wrapping the pieces up was easy, and I came up with a project apt-canary that provides a script apt-canary-gpgv that verify the local apt release files against something I call a “apt canary witness” file stored at a URL somewhere.

I’m now running apt-canary on my Trisquel aramo laptop, a Trisquel nabia server, and Talos II ppc64el Debian machine. This means I have solved the per-IP substitution worries (or at least made them less likely to occur, having to send the same malicious release files to both GitLab and my system), and allow me to have an audit log of all release files that I actually use for installing and downloading packages.

What do you think? There are clearly a lot of work and improvements to be made. This is a proof-of-concept implementation of an idea, but instead of refining it until perfection and delaying feedback, I wanted to publish this to get others to think about the problems and various ways to resolve them.

Btw, I’m going to be at FOSDEM’23 this weekend, helping to manage the Security Devroom. Catch me if you want to chat about this or other things. Happy Hacking!

5 Replies to “Apt Archive Transparency: debdistdiff & apt-canary”

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