The power of GnuPG: Use gpg keys for ssh authentication, with gpg-agent

Posted on May 20, 2017

In GnuPG 2.0 and 2.1, we are able to use gpg-agent to fully replace ssh-agent. And since 2.1, use gpg keys for ssh authentication with gpg-agent becomes much easier than in previous versions. No need to convert/export gpg keys as ssh keys via third party tools anymore. For me, the biggest benefit is that in this way, I can manage my gpg and ssh keys the same way in gnupg keyring.

Replace ssh-agent with gpg-agent


Firstly we need to tell gpg-agent to enable ssh support by adding the following lines to ~/.gnupg/gpg-agent.conf:


And optionally, to avoid typing passphrase every time, add the following lines also:

default-cache-ttl-ssh 10800
max-cache-ttl-ssh 10800

These two lines set both maximum and default ssh key cache time to 3 hours.

Start gpg-agent at startup

Although GnuPG programs are able to start gpg-agent on demand, we still have to ensure the agent is started when we logged into the system as ssh client has no way to know that it needs to start gpg-agent nor how to do it. My choice is to add the following lines into .zshrc, you can adjust the script and where to put it in based on your need:

if ! pgrep -x -u "${USER}" gpg-agent >/dev/null 2>&1; then
  gpg-connect-agent /bye >/dev/null 2>&1

export SSH_AUTH_SOCK=/run/user/$UID/gnupg/S.gpg-agent.ssh

export GPG_TTY=$(tty)
gpg-connect-agent updatestartuptty /bye >/dev/null

The GPG_TTY line has nothing to do with gpg-agent but is necessary if you want curses based Pinentry to work without problems.
Edit 2017-06-25: last week my gpg-agent stopped working as a ssh-agent with error sign_and_send_pubkey: signing failed: agent refused operation. After some searches on the web, I found that setting GPG_TTY correctly and plus the updatestartuptty line is the rescue.

Make sure ssh-agent does not start automatically any more

If you are using a full featured desktop environment like Gnome or KDE, ssh-agent must already be configured to run automatically at system startup. You need to consult the documentations of Gnome or KDE to remove it from the auto-start list.

If you are using Arch Linux with a minimalist window manager like i3wm as me, nothing needs to be done as this setup does not start many things at startup usually.

Create an authentication purposed gpg key and use it for ssh authentication

Create a gpg key with the sole purpose

Assume you already have a gpg key, if not please create one via gpg --gen-key first. Now add a new key which has only one capability - authentication:

  1. Run gpg --expert --edit-key [your key id here]
  2. In the interactive shell run addkey
  3. Select RSA (set your own capabilities)
  4. Select S then E to turn off the default sign and encrypt capabilities, then select A to turn on authentication.
  5. Select Q to finish capabilities selection and finish other steps.

Use the new created key for ssh authentication

Prior to gpg version 2.1, you will have to use some third party tools to convert the gpg key to ssh key, and use it in the same way as for other ordinary ssh keys. Start from version 2.1 things became much easier.

  1. Find out keygrip of the new created key by running gpg2 --with-keygrip -k [your key id].
  2. Write it into ~/.gnupg/sshcontrol as a separate line.

Now if you run ssh-add -l you should be able to see the new added key.

To export the public key in a correct form for ~/.ssh/authorized_keys and github etc., use ssh-add -L instead.