Publishing My Private Keys

Update March 2017: I no longer use PGP. Also, there’s a bug in GnuPG that silently discards these security settings, and it’s unlikely to ever get fixed. You’ll need to find/build an old version of GnuPG if you want to properly protect your secret keys.

One of the items in my dotfiles repository is my PGP keys, both private and public. I believe this is a unique approach that hasn’t been done before — a public experiment. It may seem dangerous, but I’ve given it careful thought and I’m only using the tools already available from GnuPG. It ensures my keys are well backed-up (via the Torvalds method) and available wherever I should need them.

In your GnuPG directory there are two core files: secring.gpg and pubring.gpg. The first contains your secret keys and the second contains public keys. secring.gpg is not itself encrypted. You can (should) have different passphrases for each key, after all. These files (or any PGP file) can be inspected with --list-packets. Notice it won’t prompt for a passphrase in order to get this data,

$ gpg --list-packets ~/.gnupg/secring.gpg
:secret key packet:
    version 4, algo 1, created 1298734547, expires 0
    skey[0]: [2048 bits]
    skey[1]: [17 bits]
    iter+salt S2K, algo: 9, SHA1 protection, hash: 10, salt: ...
    protect count: 10485760 (212)
    protect IV:  a6 61 4a 95 44 1e 7e 90 88 c3 01 70 8d 56 2e 11
    encrypted stuff follows
:user ID packet: "Christopher Wellons <...>"
:signature packet: algo 1, keyid 613382C548B2B841
... and so on ...

Each key is encrypted individually within this file with a passphrase. If you try to use the key, GPG will attempt to decrypt it by asking for the passphrase. If someone were to somehow gain access to your secring.gpg, they’d still need to get your passphrase, so pick a strong one. The official documentation advises you to keep your secring.gpg well-guarded and only rely on the passphrase as a cautionary measure. I’m ignoring that part.

If you’re using GPG’s defaults, your secret key is encrypted with CAST5, a symmetric block cipher. The encryption key is your passphrase salted (mixed with a non-secret random number) and hashed with SHA-1 65,536 times. Using the hash function over and over is called key stretching. It greatly increases the amount of required work for a brute-force attack, making your passphrase more effective. All of these settings can be adjusted to better protect the secret key at the cost of less portability. Since I’ve chosen to publish my secring.gpg in my dotfiles repository I cranked up the settings as far as I can.

I changed the cipher to AES256, which is more modern, more trusted, and more widely used than CAST5. For the passphrase digest, I selected SHA-512. There are better passphrase digest algorithms out there but this is the longest, slowest one that GPG offers. The PGP spec supports between 1024 and 65,011,712 digest iterations, so I picked one of the largest. 65 million iterations takes my laptop over a second to process — absolutely brutal for someone attempting a brute-force attack. Here’s the command to change to this configuration on an existing key,

gpg --s2k-cipher-algo AES256 --s2k-digest-algo SHA512 --s2k-mode 3 \
    --s2k-count 65000000 --edit-key <key id>

When the edit key prompt comes up, enter passwd to change your passphrase. You can enter the same passphrase again and it will re-use it with the new configuration.

I’m feeling quite secure with my secret key, despite publishing my secring.gpg. Before now, I was much more at risk of losing it to disk failure than having it exposed. I challenge anyone who doubts my security to crack my secret key. I’d rather learn that I’m wrong sooner than later!

With this established in my dotfiles repository, I can more easily include private dotfiles. Rather than use a symmetric cipher with an individual passphrase on each file, I encrypt the private dotfiles to myself. All my private dotfiles are managed with one key: my PGP key. This also plays better with Emacs. While it supports transparent encryption, it doesn’t even attempt to manage your passphrase (with good reason). If the file is encrypted with a symmetric cipher, Emacs will prompt for a passphrase on each save. If I encrypt them with my public key, I only need the passphrase when I first open the file.

How it works right now is any dotfile that ends with .priv.pgp will be decrypted into place — not symlinked, unfortunately, since this is impossible. The install script has a -p switch to disable private dotfiles, such as when I’m using an untrusted computer. gpg-agent ensures that I only need to enter my passphrase once during the install process no matter how many private dotfiles there are.

Load Comments

null program

Chris Wellons