A standard pitfall of disk encryption on Linux is needing /boot unencrypted. Specifically the bootloader and initrd. Encrypting the entire disk means putting those somewhere else, e.g. on a USB stick.

edit: I have now learned that grub can now decrypt a filesystem containing the kernel at boot so it's only the bootloader that needs to be unencrypted under Linux

I am under the impression that it's "known" that FileVault implements whole disk encryption. I certainly believed this was the case. This is slightly difficult to demonstrate without a bunch of links to external sites. A couple of internal ones:

brute-force-on-whole-disk-encryption and whole-disk-encryption-with-a-windows-only-bootcamp

And an existing question that answers essentially this question is-file-vault-2-whole-disk-encryption-or-whole-partition-encryption

It seems fairly clear that file vault works at partition granularity and that Apple uses a separate boot partition. I can't find any evidence to suggest that file vault can be used on the boot partition.

I don't understand how it can boot so far as to offer a login prompt if the whole disk is encrypted. What am I missing?

For reference, the system I'm interested in is using apfs rather than cs and does not have a T2 chip.

  • Nobody says the boot partition needs to be on a stick, it can also be on the drive itself :-) – nohillside Jul 20 '18 at 12:11
  • I suppose so. An encrypted boot on the drive couldn't be used to boot linux but you could chain load it from some other kernel if you wanted to. – Jon Chesterfield Jul 20 '18 at 12:13
  • Hi Jon - can you edit if you are using APFS containers or HFS+ containers? The encryption options are vastly expanded for APFS and the discussion we have will be wrong without one or the other to narrow down. A proper treatment of all of this might require a chapter or two in a book and I’m pretty sure you’re looking for a more narrow answer here. – bmike Jul 20 '18 at 16:28

At the most basic level, Apple controls the firmware and stores the absolute minimum information needed to present the illusion that an OS is running at the pre-boot log in screen when FileVault is enabled.

This is documented quite extensively by Apple:

Prior to the T2 chip which serves as a sort of trusted module to authenticate if the OS being booted is properly signed / encrypted and/or not tampered with, this pre-boot information can be stored in NVRAM as well as the EFI / recovery HD which don’t get encrypted with a key that needs a user password/passphrase to unlock the main storage.

When you change the background or users that are allowed to unlock FileVault - this cached data is saved outside the encrypted portion of the disk so we are presented with the icons and graphical log in screen. When I see Apple say the startup disk is encrypted, I take that to mean the Macintosh HD logical volume only which stores all user data and all OS but not the firmware and pre-boot data. (except for the T2 chip enabled hardware which are special cases and not the norm yet)

You can confirm this with either commend below based on whether your OS supports APFS and APFS containers which is the new standard for volumes and encryption or HFS+ and Core Storage containers.

diskutil cs list
diskutil apfs list

The other exciting change that’s in progress relating to the T2 chip on the new MacBook Pro and the iMac Pro is that it can enforce encryption to the internal storage whether or not anyone takes the second step of FileVault encryption. Specifically, it will generate an encryption key and start encrypting all data before the user account is even created. An SSD from any of these will not be readable if taken to another computer whether that computer has a T2 chip or not. The keys needed to decrypt the entire drive are stored solely in the Secure Enclave.

  • Re: your excitement. What advantages does it have using the T2 encryption scheme compared to ordinary FV2 (or with respect to the OP: the the Linux variant dm-crypt [or whatever you can choose else there])? And how would modern AppleSSDs be taken out of the T2 MBPs in the first place? – LangLangC Jul 20 '18 at 21:10
  • 1
    @LangLangC Re your questions, I'll leave the first one for bmike as he will have his own thoughts re the advantages of the T2. As for the question about modern Apple SSDs, they're basically flash memory chips soldered onto the logic board, with the T2 chip acting as the controller. So, in reality you'd have to remove the logic board to remove the SSDs. With the right equipment one would be able to remove just the flash chips, but I would suggest that over 99.99% of people won't have access to that sort of equipment, and even if they did the risk and time involved are huge disincentives. – Monomeeth Jul 20 '18 at 22:14
  • The T2 chip means that Apple can offer us cryptographic erasure of media by replacing / rotating / destroying the keys. Up till now, if you wrote confidential / sensitive information to an SSD - the controller could swap that data out of the active space and no manner of erasing would cleanse that disk. This allows a path to recovering if you copy data to an SSD before you ensure FileVault is set (or if someone deactivated FV and decryption begins and data is stored in the clear). – bmike Jul 20 '18 at 23:50

The boot partition doesn't needs to be on a stick, it can also be on the drive itself (Boot OS X):

pse@Mithos:~$ diskutil list
/dev/disk0 (internal, physical):
   #:                       TYPE NAME                    SIZE       IDENTIFIER
   0:      GUID_partition_scheme                        *121.3 GB   disk0
   1:                        EFI EFI                     209.7 MB   disk0s1
   2:          Apple_CoreStorage Macintosh HD            121.0 GB   disk0s2
   3:                 Apple_Boot Boot OS X               134.2 MB   disk0s3

/dev/disk1 (internal, physical):
   #:                       TYPE NAME                    SIZE       IDENTIFIER
   0:      GUID_partition_scheme                        *1.0 TB     disk1
   1:                        EFI EFI                     209.7 MB   disk1s1
   2:          Apple_CoreStorage Macintosh HD            999.3 GB   disk1s2
   3:                 Apple_Boot Recovery HD             650.1 MB   disk1s3

/dev/disk2 (internal, virtual):
   #:                       TYPE NAME                    SIZE       IDENTIFIER
   0:                  Apple_HFS Macintosh HD           +1.1 TB     disk2
                                 Logical Volume on disk0s2, disk1s2
                                 Unlocked Encrypted Fusion Drive
  • Which of the three partitions are encrypted? – Jon Chesterfield Jul 20 '18 at 12:15
  • @Jon Chesterfield None directly. disk0s2 and disk1s2 are part of the logical volume disk2. – nohillside Jul 20 '18 at 12:21
  • Apple_Boot and EFI are not part of the encrypted logical volume? – Jon Chesterfield Jul 20 '18 at 12:26
  • @JonChesterfield Only the logical volume is encrypted (and the partitions which are part of if) – nohillside Jul 20 '18 at 12:29
  • That suggests the technically disappointing explanation that OSX cannot encrypt the entire disk, despite descriptions claiming it does. – Jon Chesterfield Jul 20 '18 at 12:35

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