Frequently Asked Questions

How does SecureDrop Workstation work?

SecureDrop Workstation is a Qubes-based project. It consists of several different carefully-configured virtual machines (VMs), so that everything a journalist needs to use SecureDrop resides on one computer. Encryption and decryption happen with one click using a network-isolated VM that holds the SecureDrop Submission Key. Submissions can be viewed securely on the same machine thanks to a feature of Qubes that creates temporary VMs in which to view untrusted content without exposing the rest of your system to that content.

As a journalist, you will log into the SecureDrop application with the same credentials you previously used to log into the Journalist Interface. You will then be able to view, download, and reply to and submissions—all on the same device.

How is using Qubes different from using virtual machines?

Virtual machines that run on your Mac, Windows, or Linux machine (such as those created using VirtualBox, Parallels, and so on) are a “guest” on your machine, but still require a “host” operating system on top of which to run. These virtual machines are not designed as security tools; if the host OS is compromised, there are no protections for the guest OS, and some features (such as networking) allow communications between guest and host that can compromise the security of both.

In contrast, Qubes virtualization occurs at a lower level, under the Xen hypervisor. This means that virtual machines (VMs) in a Qubes environment can run operating systems that are independent of each other and are not reliant on a host OS.

In addition, these virtual machines can be used to quarantine specific functions of your computer. For example, network access is provided via two or more VMs, and you can control which applications or files have access to a networked environment by connecting to or disconnecting from these VMs.

Finally, Qubes is designed to make it more difficult for malware to remain on your machine. Each VM has read-only access to the root filesystem that provides its operating system, meaning that if a VM is infected with malware, it will be more difficult for that malware to persist across a reboot of that VM.

For more about the security features of Qubes, see the Qubes OS documentation.

How does the security of this system compare to using an air-gapped Secure Viewing Station?

The air-gapped Secure Viewing Station that is part of a SecureDrop setup offers strong protections against exfiltration of submissions or encryption keys by adversaries. It lacks important protections that SecureDrop Workstation provides. On the other hand, vulnerabilities in Qubes OS or Xen Hypervisor may have a greater security impact than vulnerabilities in Tails, the operating system used on a Secure Viewing Station.

A typical SVS USB drive may contain documents from multiple sources and always contains the highly sensitive private key needed to decrypt them. An adversary who does manage to achieve a security compromise (e.g., through a vulnerability in a file viewer application) can access these other files, and may be able to exfiltrate them.

In spite of the air-gap, this may be possible through physical channels used to transfer files off the SVS (e.g., USB drives), or by motivating the journalist user to perform an unsafe action (e.g., scanning a QR code).

Because the air-gapped SVS has no Internet access, updates can only be performed using another computer and a USB drive. In practice, newsrooms may not update their SVS in a timely manner, which can significantly worsen its security posture.

In SecureDrop Workstation, any document received via SecureDrop is opened in a disposable VM that has no Internet access and no access to other files submitted via SecureDrop. The encryption keys are stored in a separate, networkless VM from the SecureDrop Client app.

Because SecureDrop Workstation has Internet access, updates can be applied automatically as soon as they are available. SecureDrop Workstation enforces this by downloading and applying updates before the user logs into SecureDrop.

SecureDrop Workstation uses hardware-assisted virtualization, which allows us to use custom kernels for its VMs. These custom kernels use the grsecurity patches which are also used on the SecureDrop servers, and provide additional mitigation against security vulnerabilities.

An attacker able to exploit vulnerabilities in Qubes OS or Xen-based bare metal virtualization (likely in combination with other vulnerabilities, e.g., in a viewer application) may be able to exfiltrate information directly to the Internet. Qubes closely tracks any security vulnerabilities that may impact it, and the automatic update mechanism helps to ensure that, in the event of a vulnerability, every SecureDrop Workstation can be patched as quickly as possible.

For further technical detail on design rationale and mitigations, please consult our design document.

Can I install custom software on SecureDrop Workstation?

Right now, the pilot project is designed to make the journalist experience easier by combining the functionality of the Journalist Workstation and Secure Viewing Station. The main focus is making sure that checking SecureDrop is easier and faster.

While we hope to add advanced tooling and document-processing options down the line, at this time we request that you do not change the configuration of the workstation or install additional software on it. If you have specific needs that you would like to discuss with us, please open an issue in our support portal or send us a GPG-encrypted email at support@freedom.press.

Why can’t I save or print from the Viewer VM apps?

When you view a file on SecureDrop Workstation, it is opened in a disposable VM that cannot access the network or any peripherals. The VM and all its data will be destroyed the moment you close the viewer application.

You can save files from a viewer application, but copies saved inside a disposable VM will be deleted when you close the application, and the changes will not be applied to the main copy of the file stored on your computer.

You cannot print from the viewer application, because it does not have access to peripherals. This prevents malware from exfiltrating data (e.g., via attached USB devices), and from targeting hardware-level security vulnerabilities.

You can print files directly from the SecureDrop Client by clicking “Print” for a downloaded file, which will pass the file through to your USB printer without opening it in an interactive viewer application.

Why can’t I copy and paste?

You should be able to copy and paste within any VM on the system, e.g., from one application running in sd-app to another.

Copy and paste between and to SecureDrop Workstation VMs is disabled for security reasons. The goal of this restriction is to minimize the risk of accidental pastes of sensitive content, and to reduce the attack surface for attempts to exfiltrate information.

Administrators can configure limited exceptions to this policy; please see the section Managing Clipboard Access of the admin guide for more information.

Why does it take so long to start the SecureDrop Client?

If the system has not been updated recently, the preflight updater will check for available security updates for all VMs used by SecureDrop Workstation, download, and apply them. This takes longer than for typical operating systems because of the number of VMs involved, and because some updates are performed over the Tor network.

These updates are essential to keep SecureDrop Workstation secure. Their speed is expected to be improved in subsequent releases of SecureDrop Workstation.