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Smart cards are increasingly used in workstations as an authentication method. They are mainly used to provide public key operations (e.g., digital signatures) using keys that cannot be exported from the card. They also serve as a data storage, e.g., for the corresponding certificate to the key. In RHEL and Fedora systems low-level access to smart cards is provided using the pcsc-lite daemon, an implementation of the PC/SC protocol, defined by the PC/SC industry consortium. In brief the PC/SC protocol allows the system to execute certain pre-defined commands on the card and obtain the result. The implementation on the pcsc-lite daemon uses a privileged process that handles direct communication with the card (e.g., using the CCID USB protocol), while applications can communicate with the daemon using the SCard API. That API hides, the underneath communication between the application and the pcsc-lite daemon which is based on unix domain sockets.

However, there is a catch. As you may have noticed there is no mention of access control in the communication between applications and the pcsc-lite daemon. That is because it is assumed that the access control included in smart cards, such as PINs, pinpads, and biometrics, would be sufficient to counter most threats. That isn't always the case. As smart cards typically contain embedded software in the form of firmware there will be bugs that can be exploited by a malicious application, and these bugs even if known they are not easy nor practical to fix. Furthermore, there are often public files (e.g., without the protection of a PIN) present on a smart card that while they were intended to be used by the smart card user, it is not always desirable to be accessible by all system users. Even worse, there are certain smart cards that would allow any user of a system to erase all smart card data by re-initializing it. All of these led us to introduce additional access control to smart cards, in par with the access control used for external hard disks. The main idea is to be able to provide fine-grained access control on the system, and specify policies such as "the user on the console should be able to fully access the smart card, but not any other user". For that we used polkit, a framework used by applications to grant access to privileged operations. The reason of this decision is mainly because polkit has already been successfully used to grant access to external hard disks, and unsurprisingly the access control requirements for smart cards share many similarities with removable devices such as hard disks.

The pcsc-lite access control framework is now part of pcsc-lite 1.8.11 and will be enabled by default in Fedora 21. The advantages that it offers is that it can prevent unauthorized users from issuing commands to smart cards, and prevent unauthorized users from reading, writing or (in some cases) erasing any public data from a smart card. The access control is imposed during the session initialization, thus reducing to minimal any potential overhead. The default policy in Fedora 21 will treat any user on the console as authorized, as physical access to the console implies physical access to the card, but remote users, e.g., via ssh, or system daemons will be treated as unauthorized unless they have administrative rights.

Let's now see how the smart card access control can be administered. The system-wide policy for pcsc-lite daemon is available at /usr/share/polkit-1/actions/org.debian.pcsc-lite.policy. That file is a polkit XML file that contains the default rules needed to access the daemon. The default policy that will be shipped in Fedora 21 consists of the following.

  <action id="org.debian.pcsc-lite.access_pcsc">
    <description>Access to the PC/SC daemon</description>
    <message>Authentication is required to access the PC/SC daemon</message>

  <action id="org.debian.pcsc-lite.access_card">
    <description>Access to the smart card</description>
    <message>Authentication is required to access the smart card</message>

The syntax format is explained in more details in the polkit manual page. The pcsc-lite relevant parts are the action IDs. The action with ID "org.debian.pcsc-lite.access_pcsc" contains the policy in order to access the pcsc-lite daemon and issue commands to it, i.e., access the unix domain socket. The latter action with ID "org.debian.pcsc-lite.access_card" contains the policy to issue commands to smart cards available to the pcsc-lite daemon. That distinction allows for example programs to query the number of readers and cards present, but not issue any commands to them. Under both policies only active (console) processes are allowed to access the pcsc-lite daemon and smart cards, unless they are privileged processes.

Polkit, is quite more flexible though. With it we can provide even more fine-grained access control, e.g., to specific card readers. For example, if we have a web server that utilizes a smart card we can restrict it to use only the smart cards under a given reader. These rules are expressed in Javascript and can be added in a separate file in /usr/share/polkit-1/rules.d/. Let's now see how the rules for our example would look like.

polkit.addRule(function(action, subject) {
    if ( == "org.debian.pcsc-lite.access_pcsc" &&
        subject.user == "apache") {
            return polkit.Result.YES;

polkit.addRule(function(action, subject) {
    if ( == "org.debian.pcsc-lite.access_card" &&
        action.lookup("reader") == 'name_of_reader' &&
        subject.user == "apache") {
            return polkit.Result.YES;    }

Here we add two rules. The first one allows the user "apache", which is the user the web-server runs under, to access the pcsc-lite daemon. That rule explicitly allows access to the daemon because in our default policy only administrator and console user can access it. The latter rule, it allows the same user to access the smart card reader identified by "name_of_reader". The name of the reader can be obtained using the commands pcsc_scan or opensc-tool -l.

With these changes to pcsc-lite we manage to provide reasonable default settings for the users of smart cards that apply to most, if not all, typical uses. These default settings increase the overall security of the system, by denying access to the smart card firmware, as well as to data and operations for non-authorized users.

About the author

Nikos Mavrogiannopoulos has a background in mathematics and holds a Ph.D. in cryptography. Spent two decades in software engineering, mostly in security of back-end software; formed the RHEL cryptographic team. I'm now a manager in RHEL Security Engineering.

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