Protecting your private key with the OpenPGP smartcard

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Article from Issue 252/2021
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Improve communication security with GnuPG and the OpenPGP smartcard.

Gnu Privacy Guard [1] (sometimes called GnuPG or just GPG) has long served the open source community as a tool for encrypting email and other documents. GnuPG, which is based on the OpenPGP standard, uses the familiar asymmetric key exchange approach, with a public key to encrypt the message and a private key to decrypt it. The public key is shared with other users, and the private key is kept secret by the message receiver. As long as no one discovers the private key, only the message receiver will be able to read the message.

GnuPG is thus a powerful tool for ensuring confidential communication – as long as the private key stays private. But protecting a private key is not as easy as it sounds. If you store the private key on your computer, the key is only as safe as your computer is. Your system could fall victim to malware, cyber attack, or a nosy system administrator, and if so, the private key would be at risk. On the other hand, if you are a mobile worker and you have the need to use the private key from multiple locations, lugging it around on a thumb drive poses a whole different set of security issues.

One solution that is gaining momentum is to carry the private key on a smartcard. The ISO/IEC 7816-4 standard defines a method for encoding cryptographic keys on a smartcard. The OpenPGP smartcard is an implementation of ISO/IEC 7816-4 for GnuPG and other OpenPGP-compatible encryption systems.

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