The Case for Short OpenPGP Key Validity Periods

After I moved to a new OpenPGP key (see key transition statement) I have received comments about the short life length of my new key. When I created the key (see my GnuPG setup) I set it to expire after 100 days. Some people assumed that I would have to create a new key then, and therefore wondered what value there is to sign a key that will expire in two months. It doesn’t work like that, and below I will explain how OpenPGP key expiration works; how to extend the expiration time of your key; and argue why having a relatively short validity period can be a good thing.

The OpenPGP message format has a sub-packet called the Key Expiration Time, quoting the RFC:

5.2.3.6. Key Expiration Time

   (4-octet time field)

   The validity period of the key.  This is the number of seconds after
   the key creation time that the key expires.  If this is not present
   or has a value of zero, the key never expires.  This is found only on
   a self-signature.

You can print the sub-packets in your OpenPGP key with gpg --list-packets. See below an output for my key, and notice the “created 1403464490” (which is Unix time for 2014-06-22 21:14:50) and the “subpkt 9 len 4 (key expires after 100d0h0m)” which adds up to an expiration on 2014-09-26. Don’t confuse the creation time of the key (“created 1403464321”) with when the signature was created (“created 1403464490”).

jas@latte:~$ gpg --export 54265e8c | gpg --list-packets |head -20
:public key packet:
	version 4, algo 1, created 1403464321, expires 0
	pkey[0]: [3744 bits]
	pkey[1]: [17 bits]
:user ID packet: "Simon Josefsson "
:signature packet: algo 1, keyid 0664A76954265E8C
	version 4, created 1403464490, md5len 0, sigclass 0x13
	digest algo 10, begin of digest be 8e
	hashed subpkt 27 len 1 (key flags: 03)
	hashed subpkt 9 len 4 (key expires after 100d0h0m)
	hashed subpkt 11 len 7 (pref-sym-algos: 9 8 7 13 12 11 10)
	hashed subpkt 21 len 4 (pref-hash-algos: 10 9 8 11)
	hashed subpkt 30 len 1 (features: 01)
	hashed subpkt 23 len 1 (key server preferences: 80)
	hashed subpkt 2 len 4 (sig created 2014-06-22)
	hashed subpkt 25 len 1 (primary user ID)
	subpkt 16 len 8 (issuer key ID 0664A76954265E8C)
	data: [3743 bits]
:signature packet: algo 1, keyid EDA21E94B565716F
	version 4, created 1403466403, md5len 0, sigclass 0x10
jas@latte:~$ 

So the key will simply stop being valid after that time? No. It is possible to update the key expiration time value, re-sign the key, and distribute the key to people you communicate with directly or indirectly to OpenPGP keyservers. Since that date is a couple of weeks away, now felt like the perfect opportunity to go through the exercise of taking out my offline master key and boot from a Debian LiveCD and extend its expiry time. See my earlier writeup for LiveCD and USB stick conventions.

user@debian:~$ export GNUPGHOME=/media/FA21-AE97/gnupghome
user@debian:~$ gpg --edit-key 54265e8c
gpg (GnuPG) 1.4.12; Copyright (C) 2012 Free Software Foundation, Inc.
This is free software: you are free to change and redistribute it.
There is NO WARRANTY, to the extent permitted by law.

Secret key is available.

pub  3744R/54265E8C  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: SC  
                     trust: ultimate      validity: ultimate
sub  2048R/32F8119D  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: S   
sub  2048R/78ECD86B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: E   
sub  2048R/36BA8F9B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: A   
[ultimate] (1). Simon Josefsson 
[ultimate] (2)  Simon Josefsson 

gpg> expire
Changing expiration time for the primary key.
Please specify how long the key should be valid.
         0 = key does not expire
        = key expires in n days
      w = key expires in n weeks
      m = key expires in n months
      y = key expires in n years
Key is valid for? (0) 150
Key expires at Fri 23 Jan 2015 02:47:48 PM UTC
Is this correct? (y/N) y

You need a passphrase to unlock the secret key for
user: "Simon Josefsson "
3744-bit RSA key, ID 54265E8C, created 2014-06-22


pub  3744R/54265E8C  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: SC  
                     trust: ultimate      validity: ultimate
sub  2048R/32F8119D  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: S   
sub  2048R/78ECD86B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: E   
sub  2048R/36BA8F9B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: A   
[ultimate] (1). Simon Josefsson 
[ultimate] (2)  Simon Josefsson 

gpg> key 1

pub  3744R/54265E8C  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: SC  
                     trust: ultimate      validity: ultimate
sub* 2048R/32F8119D  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: S   
sub  2048R/78ECD86B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: E   
sub  2048R/36BA8F9B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: A   
[ultimate] (1). Simon Josefsson 
[ultimate] (2)  Simon Josefsson 

gpg> expire
Changing expiration time for a subkey.
Please specify how long the key should be valid.
         0 = key does not expire
        = key expires in n days
      w = key expires in n weeks
      m = key expires in n months
      y = key expires in n years
Key is valid for? (0) 150
Key expires at Fri 23 Jan 2015 02:48:05 PM UTC
Is this correct? (y/N) y

You need a passphrase to unlock the secret key for
user: "Simon Josefsson "
3744-bit RSA key, ID 54265E8C, created 2014-06-22


pub  3744R/54265E8C  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: SC  
                     trust: ultimate      validity: ultimate
sub* 2048R/32F8119D  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: S   
sub  2048R/78ECD86B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: E   
sub  2048R/36BA8F9B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: A   
[ultimate] (1). Simon Josefsson 
[ultimate] (2)  Simon Josefsson 

gpg> key 2

pub  3744R/54265E8C  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: SC  
                     trust: ultimate      validity: ultimate
sub* 2048R/32F8119D  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: S   
sub* 2048R/78ECD86B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: E   
sub  2048R/36BA8F9B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: A   
[ultimate] (1). Simon Josefsson 
[ultimate] (2)  Simon Josefsson 

gpg> key 1

pub  3744R/54265E8C  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: SC  
                     trust: ultimate      validity: ultimate
sub  2048R/32F8119D  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: S   
sub* 2048R/78ECD86B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: E   
sub  2048R/36BA8F9B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: A   
[ultimate] (1). Simon Josefsson 
[ultimate] (2)  Simon Josefsson 

gpg> expire
Changing expiration time for a subkey.
Please specify how long the key should be valid.
         0 = key does not expire
        = key expires in n days
      w = key expires in n weeks
      m = key expires in n months
      y = key expires in n years
Key is valid for? (0) 150
Key expires at Fri 23 Jan 2015 02:48:14 PM UTC
Is this correct? (y/N) y

You need a passphrase to unlock the secret key for
user: "Simon Josefsson "
3744-bit RSA key, ID 54265E8C, created 2014-06-22


pub  3744R/54265E8C  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: SC  
                     trust: ultimate      validity: ultimate
sub  2048R/32F8119D  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: S   
sub* 2048R/78ECD86B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: E   
sub  2048R/36BA8F9B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: A   
[ultimate] (1). Simon Josefsson 
[ultimate] (2)  Simon Josefsson 

gpg> key 3

pub  3744R/54265E8C  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: SC  
                     trust: ultimate      validity: ultimate
sub  2048R/32F8119D  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: S   
sub* 2048R/78ECD86B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: E   
sub* 2048R/36BA8F9B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: A   
[ultimate] (1). Simon Josefsson 
[ultimate] (2)  Simon Josefsson 

gpg> key 2

pub  3744R/54265E8C  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: SC  
                     trust: ultimate      validity: ultimate
sub  2048R/32F8119D  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: S   
sub  2048R/78ECD86B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: E   
sub* 2048R/36BA8F9B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2014-09-30  usage: A   
[ultimate] (1). Simon Josefsson 
[ultimate] (2)  Simon Josefsson 

gpg> expire
Changing expiration time for a subkey.
Please specify how long the key should be valid.
         0 = key does not expire
        = key expires in n days
      w = key expires in n weeks
      m = key expires in n months
      y = key expires in n years
Key is valid for? (0) 150
Key expires at Fri 23 Jan 2015 02:48:23 PM UTC
Is this correct? (y/N) y

You need a passphrase to unlock the secret key for
user: "Simon Josefsson "
3744-bit RSA key, ID 54265E8C, created 2014-06-22


pub  3744R/54265E8C  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: SC  
                     trust: ultimate      validity: ultimate
sub  2048R/32F8119D  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: S   
sub  2048R/78ECD86B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: E   
sub* 2048R/36BA8F9B  created: 2014-06-22  expires: 2015-01-23  usage: A   
[ultimate] (1). Simon Josefsson 
[ultimate] (2)  Simon Josefsson 

gpg> save
user@debian:~$ gpg -a --export 54265e8c > /media/KINGSTON/updated-key.txt
user@debian:~$ 

I remove the “transport” USB stick from the “offline” computer, and back on my laptop I can inspect the new updated key. Let’s use the same command as before. The key creation time is the same (“created 1403464321”), of course, but the signature packet has a new time (“created 1409064478”) since it was signed now. Notice “created 1409064478” and “subpkt 9 len 4 (key expires after 214d19h35m)”. The expiration time is computed based on when the key was generated, not when the signature packet was generated. You may want to double-check the pref-sym-algos, pref-hash-algos and other sub-packets so that you don’t accidentally change anything else. (Btw, re-signing your key is also how you would modify those preferences over time.)

jas@latte:~$ cat /media/KINGSTON/updated-key.txt |gpg --list-packets | head -20
:public key packet:
	version 4, algo 1, created 1403464321, expires 0
	pkey[0]: [3744 bits]
	pkey[1]: [17 bits]
:user ID packet: "Simon Josefsson "
:signature packet: algo 1, keyid 0664A76954265E8C
	version 4, created 1409064478, md5len 0, sigclass 0x13
	digest algo 10, begin of digest 5c b2
	hashed subpkt 27 len 1 (key flags: 03)
	hashed subpkt 11 len 7 (pref-sym-algos: 9 8 7 13 12 11 10)
	hashed subpkt 21 len 4 (pref-hash-algos: 10 9 8 11)
	hashed subpkt 30 len 1 (features: 01)
	hashed subpkt 23 len 1 (key server preferences: 80)
	hashed subpkt 25 len 1 (primary user ID)
	hashed subpkt 2 len 4 (sig created 2014-08-26)
	hashed subpkt 9 len 4 (key expires after 214d19h35m)
	subpkt 16 len 8 (issuer key ID 0664A76954265E8C)
	data: [3744 bits]
:user ID packet: "Simon Josefsson "
:signature packet: algo 1, keyid 0664A76954265E8C
jas@latte:~$ 

Being happy with the new key, I import it and send it to key servers out there.

jas@latte:~$ gpg --import /media/KINGSTON/updated-key.txt 
gpg: key 54265E8C: "Simon Josefsson " 5 new signatures
gpg: Total number processed: 1
gpg:         new signatures: 5
jas@latte:~$ gpg --send-keys 54265e8c
gpg: sending key 54265E8C to hkp server keys.gnupg.net
jas@latte:~$ gpg --keyserver keyring.debian.org  --send-keys 54265e8c
gpg: sending key 54265E8C to hkp server keyring.debian.org
jas@latte:~$ 

Finally: why go through this hassle, rather than set the key to expire in 50 years? Some reasons for this are:

  1. I don’t trust myselt to keep track of a private key (or revocation cert) for 50 years.
  2. I want people to notice my revocation certificate as quickly as possible.
  3. I want people to notice other changes to my key (e.g., cipher preferences) as quickly as possible.

Let’s look into the first reason a bit more. What would happen if I lose both the master key and the revocation cert, for a key that’s valid 50 years? I would start from scratch and create a new key that I upload to keyservers. Then there would be two keys out there that are valid and identify me, and both will have a set of signatures on it. None of them will be revoked. If I happen to lose the new key again, there will be three valid keys out there with signatures on it. You may argue that this shouldn’t be a problem, and that nobody should use any other key than the latest one I want to be used, but that’s a technical argument — and at this point we have moved into usability, and that’s a trickier area. Having users select which out of a couple of apparently all valid keys that exist for me is simply not going to work well.

The second is more subtle, but considerably more important. If people retrieve my key from keyservers today, and it expires in 50 years, there will be no need to refresh it from key servers. If for some reason I have to publish my revocation certificate, there will be people that won’t see it. If instead I set a short validity period, people will have to refresh my key once in a while, and will then either get an updated expiration time, or will get the revocation certificate. This amounts to a CRL/OCSP-like model.

The third is similar to the second, but deserves to be mentioned on its own. Because the cipher preferences are expressed (and signed) in my key, and that ciphers come and go, I would expect that I will modify those during the life-time of my long-term key. If I have a long validity period of my key, people would not refresh it from key servers, and would encrypt messages to me with ciphers I may no longer want to be used.

The downside of having a short validity period is that I have to do slightly more work to get out the offline master key once in a while (which I have to once in a while anyway because I’m signing other peoples keys) and that others need to refresh my key from the key servers. Can anyone identify other disadvantages? Also, having to explain why I’m using a short validity period used to be a downside, but with this writeup posted that won’t be the case any more. 🙂

16 thoughts on “The Case for Short OpenPGP Key Validity Periods

  1. One disadvantage is that it takes a while for the Debian keyring to be updated; this is not an automatic process; this can take several weeks at least. With an expiry time of 100 days, I suspect that you will either need to update really often or expect to be locked out of Debian regularly.

    Of course a good question is why the Debian keyring updates cannot happen e.g. weekly. Especially merging in refreshed keys, since this is fully cryptographically verifiable.

  2. Thanks for feedback. Right, and I do recall having been locked out of Debian with my old key for this reason — I used similar short validity periods. I just checked, and I had forgotten that my new key has not even been added to the Debian keyring yet, so I can’t tell how long it takes for this expiry update to be applied.

    Still, I agree, I see no reason why key refresh updates should take that long. Is it the same if I post a revocation cert? It seems bad if I lose my key, upload the revocation cert to keyring.debian.org, and it takes several weeks for Debian to notice this.

    /Simon

  3. Thanks a lot for this informative article. I’ve actually been wondering how it can make sense that I can change my key expiry date at all.
    I do like your scheme, though it’s too late for my key which is already distributed with an expiry of 10 years… oh well, I can fix that in 2024 😉

    I have one question though: What about the expiry date of the signatures you gather? Could it be that some software, per default, sets the expiry date for signatures to the one of the key to be signed? I’d rather not re-collect all signatures every 100 days or so.

    • Hi Ralf. 10 years is better than 50 years 🙂

      Signature of keys doesn’t expire, as far as I know, and to my knowledge people haven’t had to re-sign my old B565716F key and I used the same scheme for that key for 5+ years already. So no problem there.

      /Simon

    • Ralf, you can update your expiration date to be *shorter* as well, if you want. Sure, the people who haven’t seen the new self-sig will still think it’s good for 2024, but if they update your key from the keyservers once before then, then they will be on track to refresh your key at the schedule you choose.

      You wrote:
      > Could it be that some software, per default, sets the expiry date for signatures to the one of the key to be signed?

      The answer is: no, not for any current version of GnuPG. I tested this recently, and no implementation in any supported version of debian makes that mistake.

      If you do pass gnupg the –ask-cert-expire option when keysigning, and it notices that the key being signed has an expiration date, it will offer to set the expiration to the same date, but you can give it a firm date instead. If you’re in the habit of setting your third-party certifications to expire, you should already have a reasonable policy that doesn’t include making very short-term third-party certifications if you don’t have some mechanism to refresh them regularly.

    • I have similarly setup my key (offline master with signing/encryption keys in a HSM) only it expires every year. I’ve had no problem with signatures or software breaking anything. All in all, it seems to be working without problems.

  4. I see that you set expiration date for masterkey and all subkeys. What about situation when expire date is set only for masterkey? It is good? It is bad?

    • Hi. I’m not really sure what an expired master key and unexpired subkeys would mean. I suspect the master key expiration day is also checked, but feels a bit more complicated. Is there anything you would gain with this approach? Sure you don’t have to update the selfsig on the subkeys every now and then, but you still have to update the selfsig on the master key which is typically the same amount of hassle.

      /Simon

  5. My question, which also applies to your post about setting up the keys offline with USB key, is can this all be scripted?

    One script could live on the USB key with the keys, and a corresponding script could live in your home directory for the day-to-day operations that don’t occur on the offline computer. It doesn’t have to be entirely automatic, I don’t think that’s possible anyway, but instead prompt the user, explaining what it needed, making sure to get the proper value, and telling the user what step to take next when it’s not so clear.

    It’s not that I think the process is all that difficult but it is very time consuming and involved and from a usability perspective entirely unworkable.

    Only your die hard security conscious users will even ever attempt this. Even with a script. you might get only a slight bump in user adoption but I know it would help me. I probably will end up doing it anyway but I’d rather it be done by someone who knew what they were doing (with respect to security and gnupg).

    • Yeah I think it should be MUCH easier to adapt a work-flow similar to mine. As you say, one tool on the USB stick for the offline machine, and one tool on your daily-use machine.

      One complicated part, that I somewhat dust under the rug in my post, is how to transfer data between the offline machine and the online machine. One practical but still fairly secure approach would be to use a dedicated “transport” USB stick with a read-only toggle on. Unfortunately, you need to transfer things in both directions:

      offline->online: updated selfsigs, signed keys

      online->offline: other people’s keys for signing

      So there is still room for malware on the online machine to spread to the offline machine via the USB stick.

      /Simon

      • Using an SD card instead of a USB stick is probably a more secure alternative. SD cards show up as block devices only, so you’d need a more hardcore exploit (ie: over a block device protocol) for it to cause problems. With USB, it’s relatively easy to write bad firmware which does bad things (e.g. BadUSB, which demonstrated that you can make a USB flash drive look like a keyboard, determine which OS you’re on, and run scripts via keyboard shortcuts), but an SD card would be more difficult as it has less of an attack surface; that is unless some strange firmware on the SD card could exploit the USB hub it is connected to and then you’re back to BadUSB again.

        • I suspect SD cards have quite a lot of firmware in it too, making them vulnerable to BadUSB-style attacks as well.

          I wonder if there are any open-source (hardware+firmware) USB memory sticks or SD cards around? That would mitigate these concerns somewhat.

          /Simon

          • The BadUSB exploit isn’t directly from compromising the USB device firmware. It’s from both compromising the USB device firmware and tricking the host machine into loading a vulnerable USB device driver, followed by exploiting that driver. SD cards are only treated as block devices, limiting the exploitable surface to the block device drivers. It’s substantially safer than simply using USB.

  6. If I set an expiration date for master key and subkeys, when I need to update the expiration date do I need the sub keys physically present as well?

    I have my master key on an encrypted filesystem. My subkeys live on NEOs in other places. If I set a short expiry time, will I have to round up all of my keys, plug them in, and then change their expiry dates one by one? Or does the master key have the right to change the expiry of any sub key without the sub key being physically present?

    Also, if a subkey expires and was used to encrypt a file, the file will still be decryptable, right? The keyring might complain, I assume, but will probably still allow access, right?

    • You only need the master key to update the expiration time of all master and subkeys.

      Yes, expired keys will still be usable for decryption.

      /Simon

  7. Pingback: 自分で行うセキュリティ管理、パート1:エアギャップ・コンピュータ、GPG、スマートカード(YubiKey) | インフラ・ミドルウェア | POSTD

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