Kernel Module Signing

Linux Kernel Signing

Kernel Tainting

When dealing with offensive secuirty in the Linux space, we typically concern ourselves with kernel tainting. A kernel taint occurs when an unsigned module is loaded into the Linux kernel, which may potentially be used for malicious purposes.

A kernel taint does not always mean that something bad has happened to your machine, it just means that the machine’s state has been unoffically modified. (Think of it as a warrantly for a device such as an Xbox. If you unoffically modify the hardware, its considered tainted, and the warranty is voided).

Some actions that may cause a kernel taint are:

- The use of a proprietary (or non-GPL-compatible) kernel module—this is the most common cause of tainted kernels and usually results from loading proprietary NVIDIA or AMD video drivers

- The use of staging drivers, which are part of the kernel source code but are not fully tested

- The use of out-of-tree modules that are not included with the Linux kernel source code

- Forcible loading or unloading of a kernel module (such as forcibly inserting a module not built for the current version of the kernel)

- The use of an SMP (multiprocessor) kernel on certain unsupported uniprocessor CPUs, primarily older AMD Athlon processors

- Overriding of the ACPI DSDT, sometimes needed to correct for power-management bugs (see here for details)

- Certain critical error conditions, such as machine check exceptions and kernel oopses

- Certain serious bugs in the system firmware (BIOS, UEFI) which the kernel must work around

Source from Stackoverflow

Each of these actions will produce a certain flag that will be useful for debugging purposes by the vendor or sys admin.

When you insert a module that’s unsigned, a message will be logged that says

%s module verification failed: signature and/or required key missing - tainting kernel

This can be found in the kernel source code here: tainted message printing

In order to not taint the kernel, we must sign the module.

Kernel Module Signing

Recap on public-private keys

Before we talk about kernel module signing, lets briefly recap on public-private key encryption

Public-Private key usage

Source from Microsoft

When I want to sign a module, I sign it using my private key. Anyone can use my public key to verify the signature. If another malicious software claims to be my module, the don’t have my private key, and using my public key will thus result in a key mismatch.

As opposed to encryption, where I use your public key to lock a message, and only you have your private key to unlock it.

Signing ensures integrity, Encryption ensures confidentiality. (The last one in CIA being availability, but this is assuming the contents are always available)

Back to signing kernel modules

If you wanna read deeper, go to this post here: A History of Linux Kernel Module Signing

I’ll be talking about the main ideas.

A general implementation of module signing is as follows:

  1. Developer builds module
  2. Developer hashes the module or parts of the module and signs the hash using their private key. The signature is embedded together with the module
  3. User retrieves the signed version of the module
  4. User hashes the same parts of the module that the developer hashed and checks that the hash they created matches the hash signed with the developer’s public key

Over the years, different signing mechanism have came (and gone)

First version

- Signature is stored in an ELF section named `“module_sig”`
- Only the contents of sections whose names contain the string “text” or “data” (but not “.rel.”) are hashed
1 for (i = 1; i < hdr->e_shnum; i++) {
2     name = secstrings+sechdrs[i].sh_name;
4     /* We only care about sections with "text" or
5        "data" in their names */
6     if ((strstr(name, "text") == NULL) &&
7         (strstr(name, "data") == NULL))
8         continue;
9     /* avoid the ".rel.*" sections too. */
10     if (strstr(name, ".rel.") != NULL)
11         continue;
12     /* add contents of section to signature */
13     ...
14 }

Second version

- Performs a large set of ELF metadata sanity checks before validating the signature
- Signature itself is stored in a “.module_sig” section just like in first version
- Code, data section contents are hashed. Corresponding section headers are hashed. Relocation section headers and entries along with any symbols they reference get hashed.

Third Version

- Module signature is wrapped around the notes section `SHT_NOTE`, and named `.module.sig`
- Everything in Second version + empty and allocatable sections (Second and first version do not hash empty and allocatable sections)

Fourth version and beyond

Lets take a deeper look into this version, as its the version thats most widely used for most kernels today.

The source code for kernel version 4.17 can be found here: 4.17 Source code

The function in question is load_module, which is called whenever you insmod a module.

In load_module, we see that we call module_sig_check

/* Allocate and load the module: note that size of section 0 is always
zero, and we rely on this for optional sections. */
static int load_module(struct load_info *info, const char __user *uargs,
int flags)
struct module *mod;
long err;
char *after_dashes;

err = module_sig_check(info, flags);
if (err)
goto free_copy;


Looking at the module_sig_check code, it calls mod_verify_signature

static int module_sig_check(struct load_info *info, int flags)
int err = -ENOKEY;
const unsigned long markerlen = sizeof(MODULE_SIG_STRING) - 1;
const void *mod = info->hdr;

* Require flags == 0, as a module with version information
* removed is no longer the module that was signed
if (flags == 0 &&
info->len > markerlen &&
memcmp(mod + info->len - markerlen, MODULE_SIG_STRING, markerlen) == 0) {
/* We truncate the module to discard the signature */
info->len -= markerlen;
err = mod_verify_sig(mod, &info->len);

if (!err) {
info->sig_ok = true;
return 0;

/* Not having a signature is only an error if we're strict. */
if (err == -ENOKEY && !sig_enforce)
err = 0;

return err;

Take note that mod_verify_sig has to return 0 for it to call info-&gt;sig_ok = true

Finally, we look a code snippet of mod_verify_sig

struct module_signature {
u8  algo;       /* Public-key crypto algorithm [0] */
u8  hash;       /* Digest algorithm [0] */
u8  id_type;    /* Key identifier type [PKEY_ID_PKCS7] */
u8  signer_len; /* Length of signer's name [0] */
u8  key_id_len; /* Length of key identifier [0] */
u8  __pad[3];
__be32  sig_len;    /* Length of signature data */

* Verify the signature on a module.
int mod_verify_sig(const void *mod, unsigned long *_modlen)
struct module_signature ms;
size_t modlen = *_modlen, sig_len;

pr_devel("==>%s(,%zu)\n", __func__, modlen);

if (modlen <= sizeof(ms))
return -EBADMSG;

memcpy(&ms, mod + (modlen - sizeof(ms)), sizeof(ms));
modlen -= sizeof(ms);

sig_len = be32_to_cpu(ms.sig_len);
if (sig_len >= modlen)
return -EBADMSG;
modlen -= sig_len;
*_modlen = modlen;


We see that at the end of the module, we have two pieces of information:

  1. Module signature struct, which stores information about the module signature
  2. The signature itself

Cracking it

I have no idea how to crack it, but if anyone finds a flaw in this and prevents kernel taint, it means that they can insert whatever malicious modules they like without tainting the kernel.

Without a kernel taint, forensics and incident responders would be duped.

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