Providing secret data to QEMU

There are a variety of objects in QEMU which require secret data to be provided by the administrator or management application. For example, network block devices often require a password, LUKS block devices require a passphrase to unlock key material, remote desktop services require an access password. QEMU has a general purpose mechanism for providing secret data to QEMU in a secure manner, using the secret object type.

At startup this can be done using the -object secret,... command line argument. At runtime this can be done using the object_add QMP / HMP monitor commands. The examples that follow will illustrate use of -object command lines, but they all apply equivalentely in QMP / HMP. When creating a secret object it must be given a unique ID string. This ID is then used to identify the object when configuring the thing which need the data.

INSECURE: Passing secrets as clear text inline

The following should never be done in a production environment or on a multi-user host. Command line arguments are usually visible in the process listings and are often collected in log files by system monitoring agents or bug reporting tools. QMP/HMP commands and their arguments are also often logged and attached to bug reports. This all risks compromising secrets that are passed inline.

For the convenience of people debugging / developing with QEMU, it is possible to pass secret data inline on the command line.

-object secret,id=secvnc0,data=87539319

Again it is possible to provide the data in base64 encoded format, which is particularly useful if the data contains binary characters that would clash with argument parsing.

-object secret,id=secvnc0,data=ODc1MzkzMTk=,format=base64

Note: base64 encoding does not provide any security benefit.

Passing secrets as clear text via a file

The simplest approach to providing data securely is to use a file to store the secret:

-object secret,id=secvnc0,file=vnc-password.txt

In this example the file vnc-password.txt contains the plain text secret data. It is important to note that the contents of the file are treated as an opaque blob. The entire raw file contents is used as the value, thus it is important not to mistakenly add any trailing newline character in the file if this newline is not intended to be part of the secret data.

In some cases it might be more convenient to pass the secret data in base64 format and have QEMU decode to get the raw bytes before use:

-object secret,id=sec0,file=vnc-password.txt,format=base64

The file should generally be given mode 0600 or 0400 permissions, and have its user/group ownership set to the same account that the QEMU process will be launched under. If using mandatory access control such as SELinux, then the file should be labelled to only grant access to the specific QEMU process that needs access. This will prevent other processes/users from compromising the secret data.

Passing secrets as cipher text inline

To address the insecurity of passing secrets inline as clear text, it is possible to configure a second secret as an AES key to use for decrypting the data.

The secret used as the AES key must always be configured using the file based storage mechanism:

-object secret,id=secmaster,,format=base64

In this case the file would be initialized with 32 cryptographically secure random bytes, which are then base64 encoded. The contents of this file will by used as an AES-256 key to encrypt the real secret that can now be safely passed to QEMU inline as cipher text

-object secret,id=secvnc0,keyid=secmaster,data=BASE64-CIPHERTEXT,iv=BASE64-IV,format=base64

In this example BASE64-CIPHERTEXT is the result of AES-256-CBC encrypting the secret with and then base64 encoding the ciphertext. The BASE64-IV data is 16 random bytes which have been base64 encrypted. These bytes are used as the initialization vector for the AES-256-CBC value.

A single master key can be used to encrypt all subsequent secrets, but it is critical that a different initialization vector is used for every secret.

Passing secrets via the Linux keyring

The earlier mechanisms described are platform agnostic. If using QEMU on a Linux host, it is further possible to pass secrets to QEMU using the Linux keyring:

-object secret_keyring,id=secvnc0,serial=1729

This instructs QEMU to load data from the Linux keyring secret identified by the serial number 1729. It is possible to combine use of the keyring with other features mentioned earlier such as base64 encoding:

-object secret_keyring,id=secvnc0,serial=1729,format=base64

and also encryption with a master key:

-object secret_keyring,id=secvnc0,keyid=secmaster,serial=1729,iv=BASE64-IV

Best practice

It is recommended for production deployments to use a master key secret, and then pass all subsequent inline secrets encrypted with the master key.

Each QEMU instance must have a distinct master key, and that must be generated from a cryptographically secure random data source. The master key should be deleted immediately upon QEMU shutdown. If passing the master key as a file, the key file must have access control rules applied that restrict access to just the one QEMU process that is intended to use it. Alternatively the Linux keyring can be used to pass the master key to QEMU.

The secrets for individual QEMU device backends must all then be encrypted with this master key.

This procedure helps ensure that the individual secrets for QEMU backends will not be compromised, even if -object CLI args or object_add monitor commands are collected in log files and attached to public bug support tickets. The only item that needs strongly protecting is the master key file.