Virtual Environments: Using Qubes

SecureDrop currently uses Ubuntu Focal as its server OS. The instructions below cover setting up a SecureDrop staging environment using Focal under Qubes.

It is assumed that you have an up-to-date Qubes R4.1 installation on a compatible laptop, with at least 16GB RAM and 60GB free disk space. The SecureDrop server VMs run Tor locally instead of using sys-whonix, so the system clock must be set accurately for Tor to start and hidden services to be available.


Follow the Qubes platform instructions in Setting Up the Development Environment to create a Debian 11 sd-dev Standalone VM. Once done, we’ll create three new Standalone (HVM) Qubes VMs for use with staging:

  • sd-staging-base-focal, a base VM for cloning reusable staging VMs

  • sd-staging-app-base-focal, a base VM for the SecureDrop Application Server

  • sd-staging-mon-base-focal, a base VM for the SecureDrop Monitor Server

Download Ubuntu server ISO

On sd-dev, download the latest Ubuntu server ISO for Focal, along with corresponding checksum and signature files. See the installation docs for detailed instructions. If you opt for the command line instructions, omit the torify prepended to the curl command.

Create the base VM

We’re going to build a single, minimally configured Ubuntu VM. Once it’s bootable, we’ll clone it for the application and monitoring VMs.

In dom0, do the following:

qvm-create sd-staging-base-focal --class StandaloneVM --property virt_mode=hvm --label green
qvm-volume extend sd-staging-base-focal:root 20g
qvm-prefs sd-staging-base-focal memory 2000
qvm-prefs sd-staging-base-focal maxmem 2000
qvm-prefs sd-staging-base-focal kernel ''

The commands above will create a new StandaloneVM, expand the storage space and memory available to it, as well as disable the integrated kernel support. The SecureDrop install process will install a custom kernel.

Boot into installation media

In dom0:

qvm-start sd-staging-base-focal --cdrom=sd-dev:$ISO_PATH

where ISO_PATH is the full path to the Ubuntu ISO previously downloaded on sd-dev.

Next, choose Install Ubuntu.

For the most part, the install process matches the hardware install flow, with a few exceptions:

  • Subnet:

  • Address: use value returned by qvm-prefs sd-staging-base-focal ip

  • Gateway: use value returned by qvm-prefs sd-staging-base-focal visible_gateway

  • Name servers:,

  • Search domains: should be left blank

  • Your server’s name: sd-staging-base-focal

Make sure to configure LVM and use Virtual disk 1 (xvda 20.0GB Xen Virtual Block device) when asked for a target partition during installation. It should be the default option.

You’ll be prompted to add a “regular” user for the VM: this is the user you’ll be using later to SSH into the VM. We’re using a standardized name/password pair: sdadmin/securedrop.

Once installation is done, let the machine shut down and then restart it with

qvm-start sd-staging-base-focal

in dom0. You should get a login prompt.

Initial VM configuration

Before cloning this machine, we’ll update software to reduce provisioning time on the staging VMs. In the new sd-staging-base-focal VM’s console, do:

sudo apt update
sudo apt dist-upgrade -y

Before we continue, let’s allow your user to sudo without their password. Edit /etc/sudoers using visudo to make the sudo group line look like


Finally, update the machine’s Grub configuration to use a consistent Ethernet device name across kernel versions. Edit the file /etc/default/grub, changing the line:



GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX="net.ifnames=0 biosdevname=0"

When initial configuration is done, run qvm-shutdown sd-staging-base-focal to shut it down.

Clone VMs

We’re going configure the VMs to use specific IP addresses, which will make various routing issues easier later. We’ll also tag the VMs for management by the sd-dev VM. Doing so will require Qubes RPC policy changes, documented below. Run the following in dom0:

qvm-clone sd-staging-base-focal sd-staging-app-base-focal
qvm-clone sd-staging-base-focal sd-staging-mon-base-focal
qvm-prefs sd-staging-app-base-focal ip
qvm-prefs sd-staging-mon-base-focal ip
qvm-tags sd-staging-app-base-focal add created-by-sd-dev
qvm-tags sd-staging-mon-base-focal add created-by-sd-dev

Now start both new VMs:

qvm-start sd-staging-app-base-focal
qvm-start sd-staging-mon-base-focal

On the consoles which eventually appear, you should be able to log in with sdadmin/securedrop.

Configure cloned VMs

We’ll need to fix each machine’s idea of its own IP. In the console for each machine, edit /etc/netplan/00-installer-config.yaml to update the addresses entry with the machine’s IP.

Edit /etc/hosts on each host to include the hostname and IP for itself. Use app-staging and mon-staging as appropriate.

Next, on each host edit /etc/hostname to reflect the machine’s name.

Halt each machine, then restart each from dom0. The prompt in each console should reflect the correct name of the VM. Confirm you have network access by running ping It should show no errors.

Inter-VM networking

We want to be able to SSH connections from sd-dev to these new standalone VMs. In order to do so, we have to adjust the firewall rules. Make the following changes on fedora-38-dvm, which is the template for sys-firewall under a default setup.


These changes to the firewall rules will also apply to all other DispVMs based off fedora-38-dvm, and are meant for a testing/development machine only.

Let’s get the IP address of sd-dev. On dom0:

qvm-prefs sd-dev ip

Get a shell on fedora-38-dvm. Create or edit /rw/config/qubes-firewall-user-script, to include the following:


iptables -I FORWARD 2 -s "$sd_dev" -d "$sd_app" -j ACCEPT
iptables -I FORWARD 2 -s "$sd_dev" -d "$sd_mon" -j ACCEPT
iptables -I FORWARD 2 -s "$sd_app" -d "$sd_mon" -j ACCEPT
iptables -I FORWARD 2 -s "$sd_mon" -d "$sd_app" -j ACCEPT

Shut down fedora-38-dvm, then restart sys-firewall.

Now from sd-dev, you should be able to do

ssh sdadmin@

and log in with the password securedrop.


See the official Qubes guide on configuring inter-VM networking for more details.

SSH using keys


You likely already have an SSH keypair configured for access to GitHub. If not, create one with ssh-keygen -b 4096 -t rsa. The configuration logic will use the key at ~/.ssh/id_rsa to connect to the VMs.

Later we’ll be using Ansible to provision the application VMs, so we should make sure we can SSH between those machines without needing to type a password. On sd-dev:

ssh-copy-id sdadmin@
ssh-copy-id sdadmin@

Confirm that you’re able to ssh as user sdadmin from sd-dev to both IP addresses without a password.

SecureDrop Installation

We’re going to configure sd-dev to build the SecureDrop .deb files, then we’re going to build them, and provision sd-staging-app and sd-staging-mon. Follow the instructions in the developer documentation to set up the development environment.

Once finished, build the Debian packages for installation on the staging VMs:

make build-debs

Managing Qubes RPC for Admin API capability

We’re going to be running Qubes management commands on sd-dev, which requires some additional software. Install it with

sudo apt install qubes-core-admin-client

You’ll need to grant the sd-dev VM the ability to create other VMs, by editing the Qubes RPC policies in dom0. Here is an example of a permissive policy, sufficient to grant sd-dev management capabilities over VMs it creates. The lines below should be inserted at the beginning of their respective policy files, before other more general rules:

  sd-dev @tag:created-by-sd-dev allow target=@adminvm

  sd-dev @adminvm allow target=@adminvm
  sd-dev @tag:created-by-sd-dev allow target=@adminvm


See the Qubes documentation for details on leveraging the Admin API.

Creating staging instance

After creating the StandaloneVMs as described above:

  • sd-dev

  • sd-staging-base-focal

  • sd-staging-app-base-focal

  • sd-staging-mon-base-focal

And after building the SecureDrop .debs, we can finally provision the staging environment:

make staging

The commands invoke the appropriate Molecule scenario for your choice of focal. You can also run constituent Molecule actions directly, rather than using the Makefile target:

molecule create -s qubes-staging-focal
molecule converge -s qubes-staging-focal
molecule test -s qubes-staging-focal

That’s it. You should now have a running, configured SecureDrop staging instance running on your Qubes machine. For day-to-day operation, you should run sd-dev in order to make code changes, and use the Molecule commands above to provision staging VMs on-demand. To remove the staging instance, use the Molecule command:

molecule destroy -s qubes-staging-focal

Accessing the Journalist Interface (Staging) in Whonix-based VMs


These instructions are only appropriate for a staging setup and should not be used to access a production instance of SecureDrop.

To access the Source and Journalist Interfaces (staging) in a Debian- or Fedora-based VM, follow the instructions here.

To use a Whonix-based VM, the following steps are required to configure access to the Journalist Interface (staging).

In sd-dev

You will have to copy the app-journalist.auth_private file (located in your sd-dev VM in ${SECUREDROP_HOME}/install_files/ansible-base and generated after a successful staging build) into your Whonix gateway VM. On standard Qubes installations this VM is called sys-whonix.

To do this, in an sd-dev terminal, run the command:

qvm-copy ${SECUREDROP_HOME})/install_files/ansible-base/app-journalist.auth_private

and select sys-whonix in the resulting permissions dialog.

In the Whonix Gateway

Open a terminal in sys-whonix and create a directory with appropriate ownership and permissions, then move your credential file there:

sudo mkdir -p /var/lib/tor/onion_auth
sudo mv ~/QubesIncoming/sd-dev/app-journalist.auth_private /var/lib/tor/onion_auth
sudo chown --recursive debian-tor:debian-tor /var/lib/tor/onion_auth

Next, edit the Tor configuration so it recognizes the directory containing your credentials:

sudo vi /usr/local/etc/torrc.d/50_user.conf

In this file, enter the following:

ClientOnionAuthDir /var/lib/tor/onion_auth

Save and close the file. Finally, reload Tor by clicking Qubes Application Menu > sys-whonix > Reload Tor

At this point, you should be able to access the Journalist Interface (staging) in a Whonix VM that uses sys-whonix as its gateway.

Note that you will have to replace the app-journalist.auth_private file and reload Tor on the Whonix gateway every time you rebuild the staging environment.