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Flashing Heads on an x230 at HOPE

Installing Heads

These instructions are only for the Lenovo Thinkpad x230 and require physical access to the hardware. There are risks in installation that might brick your system and cause loss of data. You will need another computer to perform the flashing and building steps. If you want to experiment, consider Emulating Heads with qemu before installing it on your machine.

There are five major steps:

  • Flashing the boot ROM
  • Taking ownership of the TPM
  • Installing Qubes
  • Sealing disk encryption keys
  • Signing Qubes installation

Underside of the x230

Unplug the system and remove the battery while you’re disassembling the machine! You’ll need to remove the palm rest to get access to the SPI flash chips, which will require removing the keyboard. There are seven screws marked with keyboard and palm rest symbols.

Keyboard tilted up

The keyboard tilts up on a ribbon cable. You can keep the cable installed, unless you want to swap the keyboard for the nice x220 model.

Ribbon cable

The palm rest trackpad ribbon cable needs to be disconnected. Flip up the retainer and pull the cable out. It shouldn’t require much force. Once the palmrest is removed you can replace the keyboard screws and operate the machine without the palm rest. Since the thinkpad has the trackpoint, even mouse applications will still work fine.

Flash chips

There are two SPI flash chips hiding under the black plastic, labelled “SPI1” and “SPI2”. The top one is 4MB and contains the BIOS and reset vector. The bottom one is 8MB and has the Intel Management Engine (ME) firmware, plus the flash descriptor.

Using a chip clip and a SPI programmer, dump the existing ROMs to files. Dump them again and compare the different dumps to be sure that were no errors. Maybe dump them both a third time, just to be safe.

Flashing x230 SPI flash

Ok, now comes the time to write the 4MB build/x230-flash/x230-flash.rom file to SPI2 chip. With my programmer and minicom, I hit i to verify that the flash chip signature is correctly read a few times, and then send u0 400000↵ to initiate the upload. I then drop to a shell with Control-A J and finally send the file with pv x230.rom > /dev/ttyACM0↵. A minute later, I resume minicom and hit i again to check that the chip is still responding.

Move the clip to the SPI1 chip. Read out the chip using flashrom -r, keep a copy as backup and run ifdtool -u on it to enable writing to the flash from software later. Also, clean the ME firmware. This will wipe out the official Intel firmware, leaving only a stub of it to bring up the Sandybridge CPU before shutting down the ME. As far as I can tell there are no ill effects. Flash back your modified 8MB image. This time you’ll send the command u0 800000↵. (you can also use the Skulls project’s -m script to do all this work on the SPI1 chip automatically).

Finally, remove the programmer, connect the power supply and try to reboot.

If all goes well, you should see the keyboard LED flash, and within a second the Heads recovery splash screen will appear. It currently drops you immediately into the shell, to allow you to flash the full 12MB x230.bin Heads rom (or build/x230/coreboot.rom if you’ve built it locally). If it doesn’t work, well, sorry about that. Please let me know what the symptoms are or what happened during the flashing.

Congratulations! You now have a Coreboot + Heads Linux machine. Adding your own signing key, installing Qubes and configuring tpmtotp are the next steps.

On insert a USB drive containing the 12MB Heads rom and mount it using:


This will load the USB kernel modules and mount your drive at /media.

Generating your PGP key

If you’re using a new Yubikey, you’ll need to generate your key files. If you already have the public key stubs for your Yubikey, please proceed to the next section. There is some more info in the GPG guide)

Insert your Yubikey into the x230, then invoke GPG’s the “Card Edit” function with it targetting the local directory:

gpg --homedir=/media/gnupg/ --card-edit

Go into “Admin” mode and generate a new key inside the Yubikey:


Since this key can be replaced by replacing the ROM, it is not necessary to make a backup unless you want to. This will prompt you for the admin pin (12345678 by default) and then the existing pin (123456). Follow the other prompts and eventually you should have a key in /media/gnupg/.

Create a single file containing the public key for this Yubikey (the secret key lives only in the Yubikey).

gpg --homedir=/media/gnupg/ --export -a > /media/gnupg/public.key

Adding your PGP key

Heads uses your own GPG key to sign updates and as a result it needs the key stored in the ROM image before flashing the full Heads ROM.

Add your key to the Heads ROM using the following command:

cbfs -o /media/x230.rom -a "heads/initrd/.gnupg/keys/public.key" -f /media/gnupg/public.key

Any name can be used as long as the it is preceded by heads/initrd/.gnupg/keys/.

After these files are added to the /media/x230.rom, you should flash the full ROM: /media/

Once flashrom is complete, reboot (using the reboot command) and now you should now be back in the Heads runtime. It should display a message that is is unable to unseal TOTP.

Because the reproducible flash has an empty MRC cache, you need to reboot one more time so that the PCR values as they would be going forward.

Configuring the TPM

There aren’t very many good details on how to setup TPMs, so this section could use some work.

Taking ownership

If you’ve acquired the machine from elsewhere, you’ll need to establish physical presence, perform a force clear and take ownership with your own password. Should the storage root key (SRK) be set to something other than the well-known password?


There is something weird with enabling, presence and disabling. Sometimes reboot fixes the state.



Once you own the TPM, run seal-totp to generate a random secret, seal it with the current TPM PCR values and store the sealed value in the TPM’s NVRAM. This will generate a QR code that you can scan with your google authenticator application and use to validate that the boot block, rom stage and Linux payload are un-altered.

TPMTOTP output

On the next boot, or if you run unseal-totp, the script will extract the sealed blob from the NVRAM and the TPM will validate that the PCR values are as expected before it unseals it. If this works, the current TOTP will be computed and you can compare this one-time-password against the value that your phone generates.

This does not eliminate all firmware attacks (such as evil maid ones that replace the SPI flash chip), but when combined with the WP# pin and BP bits should eliminate a software only attack.

Generic OS Installation

  1. Insert OS installation media into one of the USB3 ports (on the left side)

The Heads boot process supports standard OS bootable media (where the USB drive contains the installation media which as created using dd or unetbootin etc.) as well as booting directly from verified ISOs on a plain old partition.

For example, if the USB drive has a single partition, you can put the ISO image along with a trusted signature in the root directory:


Each ISO is verified before booting so that you can be sure Live distros and installation media are not tammpered with, so this route is preferred when available. You can also sign the ISO with your own key:

gpg --output <iso_name>.sig --detach-sig <iso_name>

Some distros require additional options to boot properly directly from ISO. See Boot config files for more information.

  1. Boot from USB by either running usb-scan or reboot into USB boot mode (hit ‘u’ before the normal boot)

  2. Select the install boot option for your distro of choice and work through the standard OS installation procedures (including setting up LUKS disk encryption if desired)

  3. Reboot and your new boot options should be available to be chosen by selecting ‘m’ at the boot screen

If you want to set a default option so that you don’t have to choose at every boot, you can do so from the menu by selecting ‘d’ on the confirmation screen. You will also be able to seal your disk encryption key using the TPM allowing you to use ensure only a boot password and the proper PCR state can unlock this yet.

(*) Ubuntu/Debian Note: These systems don’t read /etc/crypttab in their initrd, so you need to adjust the crypttab in the OS and update-initramfs -u to have it attempt to use the injected key. Due to oddities in the cryptroot hooks, you also need keyscript to be in /etc/crypttab even as a no-op /bin/cat:

sda5_crypt UUID=XXXXXXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXXXXXXXXXX /secret.key luks,keyscript=/bin/cat

(Credit to for this trick).

Installing Qubes

Heads splash screen

Plus in the USB stick with the R4.0 install media into one of the USB3 ports (on the left side of the x230) and boot into USB mode (hit ‘u’ at the prompt), then boot using this option:

2. Install Qubes R4.0 [kernel /isolinux/xen.gz console=none]

If that completes with no errors it will launch the Xen hypervisor from the x230’s ROM image and start the Qubes installer. The first few seconds are run with an archaic video mode, so things appear a little weird, but once the dom0 kernel initializes the graphics it should look right.

Qubes partitioning

Use default QubesOS partitioning scheme for QubesOS 4.x

Disk encryption recovery key

The disk encrypt password that you enter here will be used as the “recovery password” later. It should be a long value since you won’t have to enter it very often; only when upgrading the Heads firmware or if there is a need to recover the disk on an external machine. You will need it again shortly, so don’t lose it yet.

Signing Qubes binaries in /boot

Once Qubes has finished installing, you’ll need to reboot and select the ‘Boot menu’ option by hitting ‘m’.

Select the first boot option:

1. Qubes, with Xen hypervisor [...]

Then make this the default boot entry by hitting ‘d’. This will also allow you to seal the disk encryption key.

You will need to input the disk recovery key here (almost for the last time), and this should start the final stage of the Qubes installer. Under Configure Qubes you should select Create USB qube holding all USB controllers so that they are protected from outside devices. This step takes a little while as the templates are configured…

Eventually this will be done and you can click “Finish”, then Qubes will give you a login screen with your login password.

If you choose to add the disk encryption key to the TPM, you’ll need to specify which LUKS volume. A default Qubes install will work if you leave the ‘Encrypted LVM group?’ response blank and enter /dev/sda2 when asked about ‘Encrypted devices?’. For more details see the TPM Disk encryption keys section below. You’ll then be asked to enter the disk recovery key as well as the new boot password you’ll use to unseal that key.

Once the key sealing process is complete, it will ask you to insert your GPG card then enter your PIN to sign the config. After this, it will reboot back to the main boot menu. Disconnect your GPG card otherwise Qubes might think you have a USB keyboard.

To start Heads now (and in the future), just hit ‘y’ for default boot.

This should start the final stage of the Qubes installer. Under ‘Configure Qubes’ you should select Create USB qube holding all USB controllers so that they are protected from outside devices. This step takes a little while as the templates are configured…

Eventually this will be done and you can click “Finish”, then Qubes will give you a login screen with your login password.

After the first reboot, the boot entry will be different post-installation, so after you hit ‘y’ to select default boot you will see a message:

!!! Boot entry has changed - please set a new default

This will also happen on OS updates that changed the boot process (updating the kernel or the initramfs, etc.). If someone has tampered with your /boot partition, this can also happen, so if you’re not sure of the situation, don’t proceed.

Choose the first option again (‘1’), then make it the new default (‘d’), confirm that you’re modifying the boot partition (‘y’), and that you don’t need to reseal the disk key (‘n’). You’ll be asked to insert your GPG card and enter the PIN to sign the new configs and the system will reboot and allow you to proceed as normal.

Installing extra software

dom0 probably has updates available. You’ll want to install them before switching / to read-only and signing the hashes:

sudo qubes-dom0-update

powertop is useful for debugging power drain issues. In dom0 run:

sudo qubes-dom0-update powertop

You might want to make the middle button into a scroll wheel. Add this to /etc/X11/xorg.conf.d/20-thinkpad-scrollwheel.conf

Section "InputClass"
	Identifier	"Trackpoint Wheel Emulation"
	MatchProduct	"TPPS/2 IBM TrackPoint|DualPoint Stick|Synaptics Inc. Composite TouchPad / TrackPoint|ThinkPad USB Keyboard with TrackPoint|USB Trackpoint pointing device|Composite TouchPad / TrackPoint"
	MatchDevicePath	"/dev/input/event*"
	Option		"EmulateWheel"		"true"
	Option		"EmulateWheelButton"	"2"
	Option		"Emulate3Buttons"	"false"
	Option		"XAxisMapping"		"6 7"
	Option		"YAxisMapping"		"4 5"

You’ll probably want to enable fan control, as described on ThinkWiki.

Disabling the ethernet might make sense to save power

TPM Disk encryption keys

The keys are currently derived only from the user passphrase, which is expanded via the LUKS expansion algorithm to increase the time to brute force it. For extra protection it is possible to store the keys in the TPM so that they will only be released if the PCRs match.

If you want to use the TPM to seal a secret used to unlock your LUKS volumes:

  1. Enter recovery mode
  2. Ensure that your the boot devices is mounted: mount -o ro /dev/sda1 /boot or whatever is appropriate
  3. Insert your GPG card
  4. Run kexec-save-key -p /boot/ ... with the followed by options appropriate to your OS. The key will be installed in all devices in the LVM volume group as well as any other devices specified after the -l option.

Examples for the kexec-save-key parameters:

Installation Type Command
Previous Heads installation kexec-save-key -p /boot/ -l qubes_dom0
Default Qubes / Default Fedora 25 kexec-save-key -p /boot/ /dev/sda2
Default Ubuntu 16.04 / Debian 9 (*) kexec-save-key -p /boot/ /dev/sda5
  1. Reboot and you will be prompted for your boot password when that device is used to boot in the future.

NOTE: should the new LUKS headers be measured and the key re-sealed with those parameters? This is what the Qubes AEM setup uses and is probably a good idea (although we’ve already attested to the state of the firmware).

This is where things get messy right now. The key file can not persist on disk anywhere, since it would allow an adversary to decrypt the drive. Instead it is necessary to unseal/decrypt the key from the TPM and then bundle the key file into a RAM copy of Qubes’ dom0 initrd on each boot. The initramfs format allows concatenated cpio files, so it is easy for the Heads firmware to inject files into the Qubes startup script.