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Pinentry Documentation

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Introduction #

This manual documents how to use the PINENTRY and its protocol.

The PINENTRY is a small GUI application used to enter PINs or passphrases. It is usually invoked by GPG-AGENT (*note Invoking the gpg-agent: (gnupg)Invoking GPG-AGENT, for details).

PINENTRY comes in several flavors to fit the look and feel of the used GUI toolkit: A GTK+ based one named pinentry-gtk; a QT based one named pinentry-qt; and, two non-graphical ones pinentry-curses, which uses curses, and pinentry-tty, which doesn’t require anything more than a simple terminal. Not all of them are necessarily available on your installation. If curses is supported on your system, the GUI-based flavors fall back to curses when the DISPLAY variable is not set.

How to use the PINENTRY #

You may run PINENTRY directly from the command line and pass the commands according to the Assuan protocol via stdin/stdout.

Here is a list of options supported by all flavors of pinentry:

--version: Print the program version and licensing information.

--help: Print a usage message summarizing the most useful command line options.

--debug -d: Turn on some debugging. Mostly useful for the maintainers. Note that this may reveal sensitive information like the entered passphrase.

--no-global-grab -g: Grab the keyboard only when the window is focused. Use this option if you are debugging software using the PINENTRY; otherwise you may not be able to to access your X session anymore (unless you have other means to connect to the machine to kill the PINENTRY).

--parent-wid N: Use window ID N as the parent window for positioning the window. Note, that this is not fully supported by all flavors of PINENTRY.

--timeout SECONDS: Give up waiting for input from the user after the specified number of seconds and return an error. The error returned is the same as if the Cancel button was selected. To disable the timeout and wait indefinitely, set this to 0, which is the default.

--display STRING --ttyname STRING --ttytype STRING --lc-ctype STRING --lc-messages STRING: These options are used to pass localization information to PINENTRY. They are required because PINENTRY is usually called by some background process which does not have any information about the locale and terminal to use. It is also possible to pass these options using Assuan protocol options.

Front Ends #

There are several different flavors of PINENTRY. Concretely, there are Gtk+2, Qt 4/5, TQt, EFL, FLTK, Gnome 3, Emacs, curses and tty variants. These different implementations provide higher levels of integration with a specific environment. For instance, the Gnome 3 PINENTRY uses Gnome 3 widgets to display the prompts. For Gnome 3 users, this higher level of integration provides a more consistent aesthetic. However, this comes at a cost. Because this PINENTRY uses so many components, there is a larger chance of a failure. In particular, there is a larger chance that the passphrase is saved in memory and that memory is exposed to an attacker (consider the OpenSSL Heartbeat vulnerability).

To understand how many components touch the passphrase, consider again the Gnome 3 implementation. When a user presses a button on the keyboard, the key is passed from the kernel to the X server to the toolkit (Gtk+) and to the actual text entry widget. Along the way, the key is saved in memory and processed. In fact, the key presses are probably read using standard C library functions, which buffer the input. None of this code is careful to make sure the contents of the memory are not leaked by keeping the data in unpagable memory and wiping it when the buffer is freed. However, even if they did, there is still the problem that when a computer hibernates, the system writes unpagable memory to disk anyway. Further, many installations are virtualized (e.g., running on Xen) and have little control over their actual environment.

The curses variant uses a significant smaller software stack and the tty variant uses an even smaller one. However, if they are run in an X terminal, then a similar number of components are handling the passphrase as in the Gnome 3 case! Thus, to be most secure, you need to direct GPG Agent to use a fixed virtual console. Since you need to remain logged in for GPG Agent to use that console, you should run there and have screen or tmux lock the tty.

The Emacs pinentry implementation interacts with a running Emacs session and directs the Emacs instance to display the passphrase prompt. Since this doesn’t work very well if there is no Emacs running, the generic PINENTRY backend checks if a PINENTRY-enabled Emacs should be used. Specifically, it looks to see if the INSIDE_EMACS variable is set and then attempts to establish a connection to the specified address. If this is the case, then instead of, e.g., pinentry-gtk2 displaying a Gtk+2 pinentry, it interacts with the Emacs session. This functionality can be explicitly disabled by passing --disable-inside-emacs to configure when building PINENTRY.

Having Emacs get the passphrase is convenient, however, it is a significant security risk. Emacs is a huge program, which doesn’t provide any process isolation to speak of. As such, having it handle the passphrase adds a huge chunk of code to the user’s trusted computing base. Because of this concern, Emacs doesn’t enable this by default, unless the allow-emacs-pinentry option is explicitly set in his or her .gnupg/gpg-agent.conf file.

Similar to the inside-emacs check, the PINENTRY frontends check whether the DISPLAY variable is set and a working X server is available. If this is not the case, then they fallback to the curses front end. This can also be disabled by passing --disable-fallback-curses to configure at build time.

PINENTRY’s Assuan Protocol #

The PINENTRY should never service more than one connection at once. It is reasonable to exec the PINENTRY prior to a request.

The PINENTRY does not need to stay in memory because the GPG-AGENT has the ability to cache passphrases. The usual way to run the PINENTRY is by setting up a pipe (not a socket) and then fork/exec the PINENTRY. The communication is then done by means of the protocol described here until the client is satisfied with the result.

Although it is called a PINENTRY, it allows entering reasonably long strings (strings that are up to 2048 characters long are supported by every pinentry). The client using the PINENTRY has to check for correctness.

Note that all strings are expected to be encoded as UTF-8; PINENTRY takes care of converting it to the locally used codeset. To include linefeeds or other special characters, you may percent-escape them (e.g., a line feed is encoded as %0A, the percent sign itself is encoded as %25, etc.).

The following is a list of supported commands:

Set the timeout before returning an error #

  • C: SETTIMEOUT 30
  • S: OK

Set the descriptive text to display #

Set the prompt to show #

When asking for a PIN, set the text just before the widget for passphrase entry.

  • C: SETPROMPT PIN:
  • S: OK

You should use an underscore in the text only if you know that a modern version of pinentry is used. Modern versions underline the next character after the underscore and use the first such underlined character as a keyboard accelerator. Use a double underscore to escape an underscore.

Set the window title #

This command may be used to change the default window title. When using this feature you should take care that the window is still identifiable as the pinentry.

  • C: SETTITLE Tape Recorder Room
  • S: OK

Set the button texts #

There are three texts which should be used to override the English defaults:

To set the text for the button signaling confirmation (in UTF-8). See SETPROMPT on how to use an keyboard accelerator.

  • C: SETOK Yes
  • S: OK

To set the text for the button signaling cancellation or disagreement (in UTF-8). See SETPROMPT on how to use an keyboard accelerator.

  • C: SETCANCEL No
  • S: OK

In case three buttons are required, use the following command to set the text (UTF-8) for the non-affirmative response button. The affirmative button text is still set using SETOK and the CANCEL button text with SETCANCEL. See SETPROMPT on how to use an keyboard accelerator.

  • C: SETNOTOK Do not do this
  • S: OK

Set the Error text #

This is used by the client to display an error message. In contrast to the other commands, the error message is automatically reset with a GETPIN or CONFIRM, and is only displayed when asking for a PIN.

  • C: SETERROR Invalid PIN entered - please try again
  • S: OK

Enable a passphrase quality indicator #

Adds a quality indicator to the GETPIN window. This indicator is updated as the passphrase is typed. The clients needs to implement an inquiry named “QUALITY” which gets passed the current passphrase (percent-plus escaped) and should send back a string with a single numerical value between -100 and 100. Negative values will be displayed in red.

  • C: SETQUALITYBAR
  • S: OK

If a custom label for the quality bar is required, just add that label as an argument as a percent-escaped string. You will need this feature to translate the label because PINENTRY has no internal gettext except for stock strings from the toolkit library.

If you want to show a tooltip for the quality bar, you may use

  • C: SETQUALITYBAR_TT string
  • S: OK

With STRING being a percent escaped string shown as the tooltip.

Enable enforcement of passphrase constraints #

This will make the pinentry check whether the new passphrase entered by the user satisfies the passphrase constraints before passing the passphrase to gpg-agent and closing the pinentry. This gives the user the chance to modify the passphrase until the constraints are satisfied without retyping the passphrase.

  • C: OPTION constraints-enforce
  • S: OK

To inform the user about the constraints a short hint and a longer hint can be set using

  • C: OPTION constraints-hint-short=At least 8 characters
  • S: OK
  • C: OPTION constraints-hint-long=The passphrase must …
  • S: OK

Additionally, a title for the dialog showing details in case of unsatisfied constraints can be set using

  • C: OPTION constraints-error-title=Passphrase Not Allowed
  • S: OK

All strings have to be percent escaped.

Enable an action for generating a passphrase #

Adds an action for generating a random passphrase to the GETPIN window. The action is only available when asking for a new passphrase, i.e. if SETREPEAT has been called.

  • C: SETGENPIN Suggest
  • S: OK

If you want to provide a tooltip for the action, you may use

  • C: SETGENPIN_TT Suggest a random passphrase
  • S: OK

Enable passphrase formatting #

Passphrase formatting will group the characters of the passphrase into groups of five characters separated by non-breaking spaces or a similar separator. This is useful in combination with passphrase generation to make the generated passphrase easier readable.

  • C: OPTION formatted-passphrase
  • S: OK

Note: If passphrase formatting is enabled, then, depending on the concrete pinentry, all occurrences of the character used as separator may be stripped from the entered passphrase.

To provide a hint for the user that is shown if passphrase formatting is enabled use

  • C: OPTION formatted-passphrase-hint=Blanks are not part of the passphrase.
  • S: OK

Ask for a PIN #

The meat of this tool is to ask for a passphrase of PIN, it is done with this command:

  • C: GETPIN
  • S: D no more tapes
  • S: OK

Note that the passphrase is transmitted in clear using standard data responses. Expect it to be in UTF-8.

Ask for confirmation #

To ask for a confirmation (yes or no), you can use this command:

  • C: CONFIRM
  • S: OK

The client should use SETDESC to set an appropriate text before issuing this command, and may use SETPROMPT to set the button texts. The value returned is either OK for YES or the error code

ASSUAN_Not_Confirmed. #

Show a message #

To show a message, you can use this command:

  • C: MESSAGE
  • S: OK

alternatively you may add an option to confirm:

  • C: CONFIRM –one-button
  • S: OK

The client should use SETDESC to set an appropriate text before issuing this command, and may use SETOK to set the text for the dismiss button. The value returned is OK or an error message.

Set the output device #

When using X, the PINENTRY program must be invoked with an appropriateDISPLAYenvironment variable or the`–display' option.

When using a text terminal:

  • C: OPTION ttyname=/dev/tty3
  • S: OK
  • C: OPTION ttytype=vt100
  • S: OK
  • C: OPTION lc-ctype=de_DE.UTF-8
  • S: OK

The client should use thettynameoption to set the output TTY file name, thettytypeoption to theTERMvariable appropriate for this tty andlc-ctypeto the locale which defines the character set to use for this terminal.

Set the default strings #

To avoid having translations in Pinentry proper, the caller may set certain translated strings which are used by PINENTRY as default strings.

  • C: OPTION default-ok=_Korrekt
  • S: OK
  • C: OPTION default-cancel=Abbruch
  • S: OK
  • C: OPTION default-prompt=PIN eingeben:
  • S: OK

The strings are subject to accelerator marking, see SETPROMPT for details.

Passphrase caching #

Some environments, such as GNOME, cache passwords and passphrases. The PINENTRY should only use an external cache if the allow-external-password-cacheoption was set and a stable key identifier (using SETKEYINFO) was provided. In this case, if the passphrase was read from the cache, the PINENTRY should send the PASSWORD_FROM_CACHE status message before returning the passphrase. This indicates to GPG Agent that it should not increment the passphrase retry counter.

  • C: OPTION allow-external-password-cache
  • S: OK
  • C: SETKEYINFO key-grip
  • S: OK
  • C: getpin
  • S: S PASSWORD_FROM_CACHE
  • S: D 1234
  • S: OK

Note: ifallow-external-password-cacheis not specified, an external password cache must not be used: this can lead to subtle bugs. In particular, if this option is not specified, then GPG Agent does not recognize thePASSWORD_FROM_CACHEstatus message and will count trying a cached password against the password retry count. If the password retry count is 1, then the user will never have the opportunity to correct the cached password.

Note: it is strongly recommended that a pinentry supporting this feature provide the user an option to enable it manually. That is, saving a passphrase in an external password manager should be opt-in.

The key identifier provided SETKEYINFO must be considered opaque and may change in the future. It currently has the form X/HEXSTRING where X is eithern,s, oru. In the former two cases, the HEXSTRING corresponds to the key grip. The key grip is not the OpenPGP Key ID, but it can be mapped to the key using the following:

gpg2 --with-keygrip --list-secret-keys

and searching the output for the key grip. The same command-line options can also be used with gpgsm.

Implementation Details #

The pinentry source code can be divided into three categories. There is a backend module, which lives inpinentry/, there are utility functions, e.g., insecmem/, and there are various frontends.

All of the low-level logic lives in the backend. This frees the frontends from having to implement, e.g., the Assuan protocol. When the backend receives an option, it updates the state in apinentry_t struct. The frontend is called when the client either callsGETPIN, CONFIRM or MESSAGE. In these cases, the backend invokes the pinentry_cmd_handler, which is passed thepinentry_tstruct.

When the callback is invoked, the frontend should create a window based on the state in thepinentry_tstruct. For instance, the title to use for the dialog’s window (if any) is stored in thetitlefield. If the isNULL, the frontend should choose a reasonable default value. (Default is not always provided, because different tool kits and environments have different reasonable defaults.)

The widget needs to support a number of different interactions with the user. Each of them is described below.

Passphrase Confirmation #

When creating a new key, the passphrase should be entered twice. The client (typically GPG Agent) indicates this to the PINENTRY by invokingSETREPEAT. In this case, the backend sets the repeat_passphrase field to a copy of the passed string. The value of this field should be used to label a second text input.

It is the frontend’s responsibility to check that the passwords match. If they don’t match, the frontend should display an error message and continue to prompt the user.

If the passwords do match, then, when the user presses the okay button, therepeat_okayfield should be set to1(this causes the backend to emit theS PIN_REPEATEDstatus message).

Message Box #

Sometimes GPG Agent needs to display a message. In this case, the pin variable isNULL.

At the Assuan level, this mode is selected by using either the MESSAGE or the CONFIRMcommand instead of theGETPINcommand. TheMESSAGEcommand never shows the cancel or an other button. The same holds forCONFIRMif it was passed the “-one-button” argument. IfCONFIRMwas not passed this argument, the dialog forCONFIRMshould show both theokand thecancelbuttons and optionally thenotokbutton. The frontend can determine whether the dialog is a one-button dialog by inspecting the one_button variable.

Passphrase Entry #

If neither of the above cases holds, then GPG Agent is simply requesting the passphrase. In this case, theokand`cancel' buttons should be displayed.

The layout of the three variants is quite similar. Here are the relevant elements that describe the layout:

title #

The window’s title.

description #

The reason for the dialog. When requesting a passphrase, this describes the key. When showing a message box, this is the message to show.

error #

If GPG Agent determines that the passphrase was incorrect, it will callGETPINagain (up to a configurable number of times) to again prompt the user. In this case, this variable contains a description of the error message. This text should typically be highlighted in someway.

prompt, default-prompt #

The string to associate with the passphrase entry box.

There is a subtle difference betweenpromptanddefault-prompt. default-promptmeans that a stylized prompt (e.g., an icon suggesting a prompt) may be used. promptmeans that the entry’s meaning is not consistent with such a style and, as such, no icon should be used.

If both variables are set, thepromptvariant takes precedence.

repeat_passphrase #

The string to associate with the second passphrase entry box. The second passphrase entry box should only be shown if this is not NULL.

ok, default-ok #

The string to show in theokbutton.

If there are any_characters, the following character should be used as an accelerator. (A double underscore means a plain underscore should be shown.) If the frontend does not support accelerators, then the underscores should be removed manually.

There is a subtle difference betweenokanddefault-ok. default-ok means that a stylized OK button should be used. For instance, it could include a check mark. okmeans that the button’s meaning is not consistent with such an icon and, as such, no icon should be used. Thus, if theokbutton should have the text “No password required” thenokshould be used because a check mark icon doesn’t make sense.

If this variable isNULL, the frontend should choose a reasonable default.

If both variables are set, theokvariant takes precedence.

cancel, default-cancel #

Like theokanddefault-okbuttons except these strings are used for the cancel button.

This button should not be shown ifone_buttonis set.

default-notokLike thedefault-okbutton except this string is used for the other button.

This button should only be displayed when showing a message box. If these variables areNULLorone_buttonis set, this button should not be displayed.

quality_bar #

If this is set, a widget should be used to show the password’s quality. The value of this field is a label for the widget.

Note: to update the password quality, whenever the password changes, call thepinentry_inq_qualityfunction and then update the password quality widget correspondingly.

quality_bar_tt #

A tooltip for the quality bar.

constraints_enforce #

If this is not 0, then passphrase constraints are enforced by gpg-agent. In this case pinentry can use the pinentry_inq_checkpinfunction for checking whether the new passphrase satisfies the constraints before passing it to gpg-agent.

constraints_hint_short #

A short translated hint for the user with the constraints for new passphrases to be displayed near the passphrase input field.

constraints_hint_short #

A longer translated hint for the user with the constraints for new passphrases to be displayed for example as tooltip.

constraints_error_title #

A short translated title for an error dialog informing the user about unsatisfied passphrase constraints.

genpin_label #

If this is set, a generate action should be shown. The value of this field is a label for the action.

Note: Call thepinentry_inq_genpinfunction to request a randomly generated passphrase.

genpin_tt #

The tooltip for the generate action.

formatted_passphrase #

If this is not 0, then passphrase formatting should be enabled. If it is enabled, then the unmasked passphrase should be grouped into groups of five characters separated by non-breaking spaces or a similar separator.

To simplify the implementation all occurrences of the character used as separator can be stripped from the entered passphrase, if formatting is enabled.

formatted_passphrase_hint #

A hint to be shown if passphrase formatting is enabled. It should be shown near the passphrase input field.

default_pwmngr #

Ifmay_cache_passwordandkeyinfoare set and the user consents, then the PINENTRY may cache the password with an external manager. Note: getting the user’s consent is essential, because password managers often provide a different level of security. If the above condition is true andtried_password_cacheis false, then a check box with the specified string should be displayed. The check box must default to off.

default-cf-visi #

The string to show with a question if you want to confirm that the user wants to change the visibility of the password.

default-tt-visi #

Tooltip for an action that would reveal the entered password.

default-tt-hide #

Tooltip for an action that would hide the password revealed by the action labeld withdefault-tt-visi

default-capshint #

A hint to be shown if Caps Lock is on.

When the handler is done, it should store the passphrase inpin, if appropriate. This variable is allocated in secure memory. Use pinentry_setbufferlento size the buffer.

The actual return code is dependent on whether the dialog is in message mode or in passphrase mode.

If the dialog is in message mode and the user pressed ok, return 1. Otherwise, return 0. If an error occurred, indicate this by setting it inspecific_error settinglocale_errto1(for locale specific errors). If the dialog was canceled, then the handler should set the canceledvariable to1. If the not ok button was pressed, don’t do anything else.

If the dialog is in passphrase mode return1if the user entered a password and pressed ok. If an error occurred, return-1and set specific_err or locale_err, as above. If the user canceled the dialog box, return-1.

If the window was closed, then the handler should set the close_button variable and otherwise act as if the cancel button was pressed.

This wall of text is a Markdown formatted copy of the original documentation.