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My thoughts on Keybase

Keybase is one of a series of new services that appear to have come up in the wake of the publication of Snowden’s document, and the desire for more and simpler crypto technologies. I may disagree with the overall message attached to the Church of Snowden (Jürgen phrases it much better than me), easier crypto is something I’m generally happy with.

Unfortunately I’m not sure if Keybase’s promise of making GnuPG easier and at the same time keep it safer is actually being maintained. It appears to make it easier, at least under certain conditions, but I disagree with it staying just as secure, particularly if you follow their “default flow.”

The first problem that comes to mind is that they even suggest you to upload your private key to their system so that you can use the browser for interacting with it! I hoped they were kidding me, but no, it seems like that’s an option, actually the first of three options when you try to do anything at all with the website.

The second is the fact that for a lot of the features to make even remote sense you have to use the command line at that point, either through their tool or through a combination of curl and gnupg. It might seem strange that I’m complaining at both ends, but it’s because I would have preferred for them to provide, say, a Chrome extension that interfaces with gnupg, than a command line tool. Even more so when you realize that the command line tool depends on NodeJS, and it includes a TSR background service.

The command line tool is also not great. Indeed when you try to log in with it, by default it’ll use pinentry, which, if started with a DISPLAY environment set, will use the graphical version (in my case, Qt.) The graphical version do not allow you to paste, which makes sense for the passphrase of a private key, or the PIN of a smartcard (if you save those in a password manager in the same system, there is very little protection provided anyway, you can leave them unkeyed.) But if you’re trying to access a service… significantly less so. I worked this around by unsetting the DISPLAY environment variable and using the console Pinentry, and just paste the password in Konsole.

But it goes more interesting when you start noticing things that are significantly broken. Keybase requires you prove access to the key you want to mark as yours, which is the obvious thing to do, and that’s good. Unfortunately they don’t seem to cope well with the idea of key expiration. From what I read in various related issues the reason is that they think key expiration is an useless concept thanks to Keybase. That may be the case if you have no other environment, but I’d think this is a myopic point of view. By the way it doesn’t matter if you extend your expiration date in time, you still have to re-prove it to Keybase because you don’t seem to be able to provide them with an updated copy of the key (like you would with a normal keyserver.)

Once I got access to my account back I managed to re-prove my website; this was needed because I moved providers (long story) for the blog and everything, and so the proof (which for whatever reason I forgot to add to the git repository I store my website on) went… poof. Unfortunately it was a bit more involved than just generating a new proof. Mostly because the fetcher that should verify said proof does not actually respect the HTTP standard requirements and provide no Accept header, which meant ModSecurity kicked it out. You’d expect that a service that is all about security and trust would at least be able to implement the protocol correctly.

To finish this off, I really dislike the “limited invites” options in general. I understand why that’s needed, but it just feels a bit useless to me, particularly when, just because I logged back in, the system granted me more invites — with the “cute and whimsical” notion that it’s the founder of the service to “grant” you those invites. Heh.

All in all, I don’t have much real use out of this system. I signed up because it was suggested it’s a nice way to prove my identity but I don’t feel it’s any better than the Web of Trust, and I’m not saying the WoT is good.

Oh well, if it takes off I’ll be there, if not, I have only spent a minimum amount of time on it.

Comments 1
  1. I never used their CLI. Does it not use `gpg` binary? Could you/should you not use `gpg-agent` to avoid frequent entry of the passphrase?

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