recoveryOS and diagnostics environments for an Intel-based Mac
The recoveryOS is completely separate from the main macOS, and the entire contents are stored in a disk image file named BaseSystem.dmg. There is also an associated BaseSystem.chunklist, which is used to verify the integrity of the BaseSystem.dmg. The chunklist is a series of hashes for 10 MB chunks of the BaseSystem.dmg. The Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFi) firmware evaluates the signature of the chunklist file and then evaluates the hash one chunk at a time from the BaseSystem.dmg. This helps ensure that it matches the signed content present in the chunklist. If any of these hashes don’t match, booting from the local recoveryOS is aborted and the UEFI firmware attempts to boot from Internet recoveryOS instead.
If the verification is successfully completed, the UEFI firmware mounts the BaseSystem.dmg as a RAM disk and launches the boot.efi file that’s in it. There’s no need for the UEFI firmware to do a specific check of the boot.efi, nor for the boot.efi to do a check of the kernel, because the completed contents of the operating system (of which these elements are only a subset) have already been integrity checked.
The procedure for booting the local diagnostic environment is mostly the same as launching the recoveryOS. Separate AppleDiagnostics.dmg and AppleDiagnostics.chunklist files are used, but they’re verified in the same way as the BaseSystem files are. Instead of launching boot.efi, the UEFI firmware launches a file inside the disk image (.dmg file) named diags.efi, which is in turn responsible for invoking a variety of other UEFI drivers that can interface with and check for errors in the hardware.
Internet recoveryOS and diagnostic environment
If an error has occurred in the launching of the local recovery or diagnostic environments, the UEFI firmware attempts to download the images from the internet instead. (A user can also specifically request the images to be fetched from the internet using special key sequences held at boot.) The integrity validation of the disk images and chunklists downloaded from the OS Recovery Server is performed the same way as with images retrieved from a storage device.
While the connection to the OS Recovery Server is done using HTTP, the complete downloaded contents are still integrity checked as previously described, and as such are protected against manipulation by an attacker with control of the network. In the event that an individual chunk fails integrity verification, it is re-requested from the OS Recovery Server 11 times, before giving up and displaying an error.
When the internet recovery and diagnostic modes were added to Mac computers in 2011, it was decided that it would be better to use the simpler HTTP transport, and handle content authentication using the chunklist mechanism, rather than implement the more complicated HTTPS functionality in the UEFI firmware, and thus increase the firmwareʼs attack surface.