4.10. Code Signing

In order to make sure an artifact was created by a known authority and was not altered later, digital signatures play a key role when building firmware images. This is also essential when a verified boot chain is established, e.g. via High Assurance Boot (HAB), signed FIT images, and a verified root file system.


On the one side, code signing consumers are PTXdist recipes that want to make use of key material, e.g. for signing kernel modules or disk images. PTXdist uses PKCS#11 internally to provide access to keys and certificates, therefore code signing consumers should implement a PKCS#11 interface to make use of PTXdist’s code signing infrastructure.

As PKCS#11 URIs usually differ between different usecases (release vs. development) the URIs are usually not hardcoded in the package configuration. Instead, PTXdist has the idea of roles which are string identifiers used to access a single private/public key pair and a certificate.

Roles can be grouped into role groups. Role groups should be used where more than one role is needed, but the exact names and/or number of roles depend on the concrete code signing provider. For example, an i.MX HABv4 fuse table can contain up to four keys.

Finally, one or several code signing providers supply the mapping from roles to the respective key material or even provide it themselves for development.

PTXdist supports Hardware Security Modules (HSM). In case an HSM is not present or shall not be used, PTXdist can emulate it using SoftHSM, while still transparently providing the same API to code signing consumers.

Code Signing Providers

For each role a PKCS#11 URI must be known by PTXdist. In case of an HSM the keys and certificates are stored in the HSM, but PTXdist needs to know the PKCS#11 URI to access the keys. For SoftHSM the URI is generated internally by PTXdist, but instead the keys/certificates for each role have to be imported by the code signing provider into the SoftHSM.

A code signing provider is a package responsible for providing the role ↔ PKCS#11 URI relationships in case an HSM is used, or for providing the key material in case SoftHSM is used.

When PTXCONF_CODE_SIGNING is enabled exactly one code signing provider is active during each invocation of PTXdist. The active provider can be selected in the platformconfig menu.

PTXdist comes equipped with a development code signing provider “devel” implemented via the package host-ptx-code-signing-dev. It imports publicly available development keys for each role into the SoftHSM.


The host-ptx-code-signing-dev code signing provider can be used to sign artifacts for development purposes, but must not be used for production.

Creating Custom Code Signing Providers

When a set of release keys or project-specific development keys should be used (e.g. to achieve backward compatibility), a new code signing provider must be introduced.

Use ptxdist newpackage code-signing-provider to generate such a new code signing provider. PTXdist distinguishes between “SoftHSM”, “HSMs with OpenSC support” and “other HSMs”. The generated shell script in local_src/<name>-code-signing/ contains an examples for the selected HSM use case. See Code Signing Helper Functions for an explanation of the available code signing helpers. In case of SoftHSM use cases the keys should also be placed inside local_src/<name>-code-signing/

In case an HSM is used it is required to extend the CODE_SIGNING_ENV with additional environment variables via a pre rule in $(PTXDIST_PLATFORMCONFIGDIR)/rules/pre/. For SoftHSM such a pre rule exists already in upstream PTXdist in rules/pre/020-code-signing-softhsm.make. For HSMs with OpenSC support a pre rule is generated in $(PTXDIST_PLATFORMCONFIGDIR)/rules/pre/020-<name>-code-signing-hsm.make. For other HSMs a skeleton pre make file is generated and must be adjusted.

For example, for Nitrokey HSMs which use OpenSC the generated pre rule looks like this:


Note that the module is built in the BSP in this case. This is not strictly required, it is also possible to use an otherwise distributed module, e.g. by the HSM manufacturer. For HSMs supported by OpenSC the required OpenSC selects are generated. If an HSM without OpenSC support is used the select FIXME should either be replaced with an appropriate host tool that provides the PKCS#11 module or removed altogether if an external PKCS#11 module is used.

Switching the code signing provider is now finally possible with ptxdist platformconfig, then navigate to Code signingCode signing provider.

Managing Certificate Authority Keyrings

In case a self-signed certificate is used cs_append_ca_from_uri can be called to add the certificate from the (Soft)HSM.

To allow rollovers multiple certificates can be added by calling the cs_append_ca_* functions multiple times. Depending on if the certificate resides on a (Soft)HSM or in a file the appropriate functions must be called.

More complex public key infrastructures (PKIs) consist of separated CA and end-entity. The CA certificate is only available as a file, the private key is stored in a safe and inaccessible location (from the build system’s perspective). The signing key as well as the corresponding certificate are stored on an HSM. Only the CA certificate should end up in the keyring, so cs_append_ca_from_der or cs_append_ca_from_pem must be used to append it to the keyring.

Some HSMs do not support storing certificates at all. In these cases the certificate is present as a file and must be appended with cs_append_ca_from_der or cs_append_ca_from_pem.

Code Signing Consumers

A package has to select CODE_SIGNING if it wants to sign something, or if it needs access to keys and/or certificates. The config symbol is available in ptxconfig as well as in platformconfig. Selecting this symbol makes sure the keys and certificates are ready when the package is being built.

By adding CODE_SIGNING_ENV to the package’s make/conf/image environment a tool implementing a PKCS#11 interface can access the HSM or SoftHSM. The PKCS#11 URI can be retrieved via cs_get_uri and passed on, usually also via an environment variable.

cs_get_ca can be used to install a keyring to the root file system, e.g.:

$(call install_copy, rauc, 0, 0, 0644, \
  $(shell cs_get_ca update), \


When code signing helper functions are used in make variables (e.g. for environment definitions) recursively expanded variables must be used (=, not :=). Otherwise the variable is expanded before a code signing provider can perform its setup.