Security/usability tradeoffs

Calibrating OpenPGP CA security/usability tradeoffs

OpenPGP CA prescribes some aspects of how to use OpenPGP within an organization. However, there are also some degrees of freedom in how to deploy OpenPGP CA. Organizations need to make some decisions before rolling out OpenPGP CA.

Protecting the CA key

When setting up a new CA, the operator needs to choose between two modes of handling the CA key:

  • OpenPGP card-backed, and
  • Softkey-backed.

The two modes have different security and operational implications:

OpenPGP card-backed operation

OpenPGP card-backed operation has the advantage that the computer that runs the CA has no direct access to the private key material of the CA key.

However, an additional (though inexpensive) hardware device is necessary. Additionally, decisions about how to handle the device need to be made. Does it stay on the person of one CA operator? Does it stay connected to the machine that runs the CA? Various approaches can be appropriate, depending on the circumstances.

OpenPGP card-backed operation mode is recommended, in most cases. For a deeper discussion of details see “The OpenPGP card backend”.

Softkey-backed operation

In softkey mode, the OpenPGP CA database contains the private key of the CA. This private key needs to be protected: it can create certifications that all users in the organization trust implicitly. If an attacker gets access to the private CA key, they can certify keys to perform man-in-the-middle attacks on users.

The OpenPGP CA database itself is not encrypted or otherwise protected, and the CA key is not currently password protected. This means that the database file needs to be protected appropriately (e.g. stored on removable encrypted storage, like dm-crypt/LUKS).

Does my organization need an offline OpenPGP CA, or is an online instance okay?

If the risk of a compromised CA key is unacceptable, OpenPGP CA should be run on an air-gapped (“offline”) system.

For offline instances we suggest running OpenPGP CA on tails.

Should my organization use the centralized or decentralized workflows?

Centralized key creation is a convenient workflow, but it means that the CA admin has access to the users’ private keys during key creation.

This means that if the CA admin machine is compromised, an attacker may get access to new users’ private key material.

This workflow also opens the possibility that law enforcement (or other actors) could coerce the CA admin to disclose private key material.

If a third party has access to the private key material of a user, they can read messages that are encrypted to the user, as well as forge signatures and certifications.

The decentralized workflow avoids these pitfalls, but makes adding new users more cumbersome: not only the key, but also the certifications and the revocation certificates need to be created on the user’s system, and sent to the OpenPGP CA admin. The main focus of the next version of OpenPGP CA is simplifying this workflow by adding support to GPG Sync to do the initial setup.

Should keys be public?

Some individuals shouldn’t be readily associated with an organization. For instance, a journalist may work for some organization, but that association should not be published. In these cases, it is best to not only not give such users an email address, but the user’s key should not be publicly certified. Such keys could be added to a private GPG Sync-style keylist. But, even this should be done with care.