Today we are excited to release Shufflecake, a tool aimed at helping people whose freedom of expression is threatened by repressive authorities or dangerous criminal organizations, in particular: whistleblowers, investigative journalists, and activists for human rights in oppressive regimes. Shufflecake is FLOSS (Free/Libre, Open Source Software). Source code in C is available and released under the GNU General Public License v3.0 or superior.
Shufflecake is originally based on the EPFL M.Sc. Thesis “Hidden Filesystems Design and Improvement” by our former student Elia Anzuoni (under supervision of Dr. Tommaso Gagliardoni and Prof. Edouard Bugnion) during his internship on the Kudelski Security Research Team.
Shufflecake is a tool for Linux that allows creation of multiple hidden volumes on a storage device in such a way that it is very difficult, even under forensic inspection, to prove the existence of such volumes. Each volume is encrypted with a different secret key, scrambled across the empty space of an underlying existing storage medium, and indistinguishable from random noise when not decrypted. Even if the presence of the Shufflecake software itself cannot be hidden – and hence the presence of secret volumes is suspected – the number of volumes is also hidden. This allows a user to create a hierarchy of plausible deniability, where “most hidden” secret volumes are buried under “less hidden” decoy volumes, whose passwords can be surrendered under pressure. In other words, a user can plausibly “lie” to a coercive adversary about the existence of hidden data, by providing a password that unlocks “decoy” data. Every volume can be managed independently as a virtual block device, i.e. partitioned, formatted with any filesystem of choice, and mounted and dismounted like a normal disc. The whole system is very fast, with only a minor slowdown in I/O throughput compared to a bare LUKS-encrypted disk, and with negligible waste of memory and disc space.
You can consider Shufflecake a “spiritual successor” of tools such as Truecrypt and Veracrypt, but vastly improved. First of all, it works natively on Linux, it supports any filesystem of choice, and can manage up to 15 nested volumes per device, so to make deniability of the existence of these partitions really plausible.
Shufflecake is made of two components: dm-sflc, which is a kernel module implementing the Shufflecake scheme as a device-mapper target for the Linux kernel, and shufflecake-userland, which is a command-line tool allowing the user to create and manage hidden volumes. The kernel module must be loaded before using the userland tool. For now the support is limited to Debian/Ubuntu and similar derivatives, testing has been done with the Linux kernel 5.13.
In a nutshell, Shufflecake allocates space for each volume as encrypted slices at random positions of the underlying device. Slices are allocated dynamically, as soon as the kernel module decides that more space than the currently used quota is required, and are interleaved to make forensic analysis more difficult. Data about the position of used and unused slices is stored in a volume-specific “position map”, which is indexed within an encrypted header at the beginning of the device. Both position map and header are indistinguishable from random data without the correct decryption key, and every slot in the header (currently up to 15 volumes) has a field containing the decryption key for the previous (i.e., “less hidden”) header and volume, thereby recursively linking all volumes and allowing the user to open all of them with a single password. This also makes overcommitment possible, i.e., if you have a 1 GiB device and you create 3 Shufflecake volumes on it, by default you will see each of these 3 volumes being 1 GiB in size (although you will start receiving I/O errors if you try to write more than 1 GiB total across all 3), which is also crucial for plausible deniability, because an adversary can never tell for sure how many other volumes are there. Notice, in fact, that if some volumes are left unopened they are not considered for the total space allocation.
A user must first
init a device, for example, a physical disc, or a partition therein, or a virtual block device such as a file-backed loop device. This will first overwrite the disc with random data and then create an encrypted header section at the beginning of the device. The header contains metadata and allocation tables for 15 Shufflecake volumes. The user is asked to provide N different passwords (where N is between 1 and 15). Then, the first N sections of the header will be encrypted with each of the N passwords, while the others will be left random. The order of the given passwords is important, because it establishes a hierarchy from “less hidden” to “more hidden” volumes. Notice that it is impossible to know how many volumes there are without decrypting.
Then the user can
open the volumes inside a given Shufflecake-initialised device. This is done by providing only one of the N given passwords, which unlocks one of the 15 slots in the header, and hence a device area allocated for the corresponding volume. Furthermore, the unlocked slot contains a key that allows to decrypt the previous (i.e. “less hidden”) slot in the hierarchy, thereby allowing to open all the less sensitive volumes recursively. All these volumes appear as virtual block devices under
/dev/mapper and can be mounted, formatted, and used to store data.
Finally, a user can
close a device and all the supported volumes therein with a single command.
Shufflecake is efficient: I/O slowdown is roughly 2x compared to a “normal” LUKS encrypted volume, which is still barely noticeable for daily desktop use, and wastes less than 1% of the available disc space. Compare this to state-of-the-art plausible deniability solutions based on WORAM techniques, with slowdowns that range from 200x to 5x with 75% of disc space wasted. A decent amount of memory (roughly 60 MiB per open volume) is required to manage the position maps in-RAM for better efficiency. There is certainly room for improvement, we didn’t focus too much on optimization for the first release, performance will surely get better in future versions.
We believe that Shufflecake fills a gap in the availability of robust plausible deniability solutions for Linux. The current release is still a non-production-ready prototype, so we advise against using it for really sensitive operations. However, we believe that future work will sensibly improve both security and performance, hopefully offering a really useful tool to people who live in constant danger of being interrogated with coercive methods to reveal sensitive information.