Ryan Kraus

linux enthusiast

Using GPG Keys

14 Jan 2019 » security

GNU Privacy Guard (gpg) is the most common implementation of OpenPGP (pretty good privacy). It is available on all operating systems and provides a safe way to encrypt messages and protect secrets.

PGP Explained

PGP works by each person having an identity. This identity consists of a public/private symmetric key pairs. You then share your identity with others by delivering your public key to them. Anyone with your public key can encrypt a message that only you can decrypt. They would then deliver this encrypted message to you by any means (like email). Upon reciept, you would then decrypt the message using your private key.

In order for this system to work you must first be able to verify the authenticity of public keys you recieve and you must never leak your private key. In order to verify the authenticity of a public key, all keys have fingerprints. When you recieve a public key, you should also ask the sender for the fingerprint through another means of communication. The likelyhood of both of these systems being compromised is minimal. If your private key is ever leaked, you must issue a revocation certificate to invalidate the previous key pair.

To assist with the sharing of public keys, there are public PGP key servers. When obtaining a key from one of these servers, always verify the fingerprints. A reasonably reliable PGP key infrastructure is the pool of SKS servers. These servers all replicate with each other and have a round-robin DNS entry to load balance across them.

Creating a Key

Use the gpg commannd to generate a new key:

gpg --gen-key

This will walk through prompts to create a new key. It is currently best to use “RSA and RSA” for the key type. Longer keys are better so I’d recommend using 4096 bits. You must then select for how long the key should remain valid. One year is a reasonable amount of time. Permanent keys are not the end of the world, but if your private key is leaked without your knowledge, you will forever be vulnerable. Finally, enter your name, comment, and email address. Once you have done all this, your key will be generated.

Sharing a Public Key

In order to share a public key, you must first export it.

gpg --armor --output public.gpg --export email@sample.com

Use the email address you used to create your key. This will create a file called public.gpg that will contain your public key. You’ll also need to get your key’s fingerprint in order to share it securely.

gpg --fingerprint email@sample.com

Lastly, you’ll also need your key ID.

gpg --keyid-format long --list-keys email@sample.com

The pub line will have the format: LENGTH/KEY_ID CREATION.

Submit Key to Public Server

You’ll first need to configure a target public server. This is stored in ~/.gnupg/gpg.conf The default is hkp://keys.gnupg.net. This server is alright, but it might be better to use an SKS server in order to ensure the data is replicated. Set the variable keyserver to hkp://pool.sks-keyservers.net hkp://keys.gnupg.net.


gpg --send-keys KEY_ID

This will publish your keys. It will likely take a while for you key to propogate and you may occasionally get some HTTP errors. The PGP infrastructure is actually pretty unreliable. That is why there are so many servers.

Get Key from a Public Server

These servers make it easier for you to share your key with others. If you share your Key ID with someone, they can now download your public key. My Key ID is E3B61E72947D4FDC. It can be fetched with the following command.

gpg --recv-keys E3B61E72947D4FDC

This will fetch the key, download it, and add it to your keychain. Now you’ll want to verify the the fingerprint for the new key.

gpg --fingerprint E3B61E72947D4FDC

The fingerprint should be:

Key fingerprint = 6A1E 33D4 B832 9019 96CB  D1C5 E3B6 1E72 947D 4FDC

If the fingerprint matches, you can then sign the key so you will trust it.

gpg --sign-key E3B61E72947D4FDC
gpg --check-sigs E3B61E72947D4FDC

You’ll now see your signature on the new key.

Encrypt a Message

date > message.txt
gpg --output message.txt.gpg --encrypt --sign --armor --recipient rkraus@redhat.com message.txt
rm message.txt

This will create a text file and encrypt it for me. You would now send that file to me for decryption. (Please dont)

Decrypt a Message

gpg --output message.txt --decrypt message.txt.gpg
cat message.txt

This will decrypt the message using your private key and write it to a file. In STDOUT, you will see the signature of party that encrypted the message and if their signature could be verified. Be sure you trust the sending party’s public key so their messages will be trusted.

Delete a Key

If you want to no longer trust a key, you can delete it from your keyring.

gpg --delete-keys E3B61E72947D4FDC

Backup Keys

It may be prudent to export your keys and save them to a secure trusted location.

gpg --export-secret-keys email@sample.com > private.gpg
gpg --export email@sample.com > public.gpg

These files can be imported on a new system like so:

gpg --import public.gpg
gpg --import private.gpg

gpg --list-keys
gpg --list-secret-keys

Be careful with these backups! They are your GPG identity!

What’s Next

There is a lot more you can do with GPG keys and they are very powerful for signing and encrypting data. The best thing about this system is that it gives you autonomy from any particular company’s infrastructure. Keys can be shared without any external infrastructure.

External Sources