Managing my passwords with pass

Jul 4, 2018
5 minute read

Last week, I received an email from Ticketmaster that my account details may have been leaked through an external supplier. Whilst I did not get notified through Troy Hunt’s excellent Have I Been Pwned?, now was a good a time as any to finally apply some proper password hygiene. A great time, even, as this has been on my to-do list for way too long. I have been preaching proper password hygiene to my family and friends whilst not yet practicing it myself! It was finally time to put my money where my mouth is. To walk the walk… you get it.

What is proper password hygiene?

You’ve probably heard it a thousand times already, but let me refresh your memory. Proper password hygience consists of the following:

  1. Use unique passwords, or at the very least use unique passwords for important accounts.
  2. Use a password manager. A password manager can generate secure passwords and store these securely. The only password that you will need to remember, is the password needed to log in to or unlock the password manager.
  3. Do not write your passwords down where other people can see them. A paper in your safe? Fine. A sticky note on your desktop? Nah. Hotel? Trivago.
  4. This isn’t stricly related to passwords, but if possible, also use two factor authentication.

My threat model here is simply curious people (think snooping family and friends) and criminals on the internet (phishing, hacking, et cetera). Nation state actors or big-time criminals are out of the question, so that file in your safe is probably fine.

Of course, you also shouldn’t use too easy passwords. This is one place where password managers shine: they can generate random (actually random) passwords for you.

Pass

Pass is “the standard Unix password manager”. Pass is simple: each password is stored in a GPG encrypted file, whose filename is the title of the website or account that requires the password. The directory structure is completely up to you, and can be copied to multiple devices and manipulated with your favorite file management tools, be it the command line or a graphical tool like Nautilus.

It is this transparency and use-of-use that I appreciate. There is no new file format or paradigm to learn, no new mental model to create and work with. I am in control of how and where the password store is stored and where and how it is synced, instead of relying on some cloud service managed by someone else. I can inspect the code because it is simple, and I can rely on the strenght of GPG instead of a home-grown encryption implementation. I am not trying to discredit other password managers, but to me these are very important factors to consider: I don’t have to rely on trust; I can verify.

I won’t explain how to set up and use pass, as both its website and man page are excellent resources. You do need a GPG key pair; if you don’t have one yet I recommend reading Debian’s how-to.

Syncing your password store between multiple devices

So now you have a super secure password store on your PC. Memorizing every password is impossible, let alone not the point of a password manager. How do you sync it to your phone, or your work device? Because you can use all your standard file management utilities, you can also use Git. Pass even has built-in support for this! If a Git repository is initialized, pass automatically creates a commit every time the password store is manipulated through the invocation of pass. You only need to add a remote and manually push your changes to it.

To sync this Git repository, my server hosts a Git server accessible only within my local network. In theory this isn’t required, because your files are encrypted (and I’m sure there are people out there syncing to a public GitHub repository). However, I do like the extra assurance that my (encrypted) passwords are stored somewhere private and under my own control. To see how to set up a Git server, see the Git book.

To manage this repository on my Android phone, I use Android Password Store. It has built-in Git and GPG support. It can access your Git repository either through SSH or HTTP. For my server, I only allow SSH connections through SSH key pairs, so I set up a new pair using the Android Password Store app and added the public key to my server.

As for the GPG key, you don’t want to use your master key pair. This would require you to copy that to your phone. In case your phone gets stolen, lost or broken into, your private key is compromised and you lose your complete online identity. To remedy this, GPG supports subkeys. A subkey is like a normal encryption key, except it is bound to your master key pair. It can be used for signing and encrypting only, but the real useful part is that it can be revoked and stored independently of your master key. See Debian’s subkey article on how to create and manage subkeys. When you have created your subkeys, copy one of them to your Android device, load it into the OpenKeychain Android application which is used by Android Password Store to manage GPG keys. Now you only have to point Android Password Store to your Git repository and you are almost good to go! Your passwords are encrypted with your master key, which means your phone cannot decrypt them using your subkey. To solve this, simply run pass init $MASTERKEYID $SUBKEYID to encrypt your passwords with both keys (yes, this is safe to do in an existing password store). Don’t forget to sync this change between your devices.

There you go! Now you can transparently manage your passwords and have full control over how and where they are stored.