Keeping a Secret Safe (and not only Secure)

Keeping a secret like GPG keys safe is not a trivial task. It gets even more complicated if you want to backup it and have access in the more distant future. Having your key on a HSM has the goal of keeping it secret. Keeping a secret safe means that it is not easy to lose your key.


The following will describe how you can backup your key with the following goals in mind.

  • Create the backup on the air gapped laptop
  • Store the backup encrypted
  • Allow restoring the secret even if you lost your memory
  • Print the backup on physical paper
  • Use only standard Linux tools


So we have our encrypted GPG key on an air gapped laptop. How do we backup the key now? The GPG documentation recommends to print backups on paper and recommends paperkey. Paper has excellent properties for backups which should last. Storing backups on Flash Memory like USB sticks is not very safe. Cheat flash storage can easily die. Burning the key to a CD seems like a good idea as manufactures promise over a 100 years durability. But do you still have a CD burner at home? Can you even read CDs anymore? I can not and the storage industry has invented many formats which are ancient today.


Here are the tools I used in my script with their purpose. I suggest you to create your own script as you only can trust one you created or reviewed.

Tool Purpose
gpg Manages GPG keys
paperkey Reduces the size of GPG keys by stripping away the public key and metadata
qrencode Create QR codes from binary data or text
gs Processing QR codes and creating PDFs
a2ps Create a printable file from plain text
base64 Create text from binary data for more portable data
split Dividing data into multiple data chunks
ssss-split Creating shares of a passphrase

That’s it! These tools are available on Ubuntu 20.10 and even on the latest Debian (apt install -y paperkey qrencode gnupg pwgen ssss ghostscript a2ps). If you use a live CD then I suggest connecting the Laptop to the internet and install these tools. In my opinion the important thing is that you can be sure that the live CD does not come with malware. If you do not trust the live CD which you are using then you have a different issue. That means you should check the checksum and signature of the image you want to boot from:

1sha256sum ubuntu-20.10-desktop-amd64.iso
2cat SHA256SUMS
3gpg --verify SHA256SUMS.sig

In my opinion it is enough to use a live CD and disconnect from LAN. After installing the tools, you can disconnect from the internet. Now nothing can leave your system, and you are safe to decrypt your GPG key.

Steps Explained

Firstly, we will use paperkey to reduce the size of our exported key. This is maybe not needed if you use ECC, But it definitely makes sense with bulky RSA keys. QR Codes do not store infinite data and if you store a lot of data in them, they get more difficult to scan. By stripping away metadata with paperkey you also get a benefit. Your paperkey can no longer expire as this part is not included. This goes more into the direction of what a backup of a GPG key should be: A copy of the private key!

We will use base64 to make the process more portable. QR codes support binary data by specification. This is not well implemented though. For example zbar has problems with handling binary data. A more portable solution is to stick with text. A further simplification is not to use “Structured Append”. This feature would allow us to split data automatically when creating QR codes with qrencode. Again zbar does not support it.

1gpg --export-secret-keys $key_id > secret-key.gpg
2paperkey --secret-key=secret-key.gpg --output-type=raw | base64 -w 76 > paperkey.base64

gpg should have asked you for a password. If not then this is a good time to set one using gpg --edit-key $keyid. You can use the tool pwgen to create secure passwords. Else you will store your GPG key unencrypted.

Now let’s split the created file and use 10 lines per QR code. Even though the QR codes could potentially store more data I used fewer lines per QR code. That way they do not get too big.

1split paperkey.base64 -d --lines=8 --additional-suffix=.base64 output/paperkey_split

We split by lines such that split does not destroy the UTF-8 encoding of our text. You should end up with 5-10 splits depending on your key. At this point it is maybe a good idea to create a second backup of the key using paperkey which will not use QR codes:

1paperkey --secret-key=secret-key.gpg | a2ps -R --columns=1 -f 10 --margin=0 --no-header -o - | gs \
2   -o "output/paperkey.pdf" \
3   -sDEVICE=pdfwrite -g5950x8420 -

a2ps create a PostScript file which is then given to gs which create a PDF file with the specified format 5950x8420 which corresponds to A4.

Now lets iterate over each split in output/paperkey_split*.base64 and generate QR codes:

1  qrencode --read-from="$split" -l L --type=EPS --size 6 --output "output/$name.eps"
2  gs -q -o "output/$name.pdf" -sDEVICE=pdfwrite -g5950x8420 \
3     -c "/Helvetica findfont 15 scalefont setfont 40 800 moveto (QR-Code $name) show
4         /Helvetica findfont 12 scalefont setfont 40 700 moveto (SHA256 of split: $split_sum) show
5         /Helvetica findfont 12 scalefont setfont 40 680 moveto (SHA256 of paperkey: $paperkey_sum) show" \
6     -f "output/$name.eps"

The above code create a QR code using qrencode with low error correction. Then we pass the QR code to gs which creates a PDF and places some text like the name of the split and some hashes for verification. The name allows us to keep reference to the splits after printing.

I told you in the Goals section that we want to be able to restore the key even if we lost our memory and therefore the passphrase to the key. This will be possible using ssss (The Wikipedia article is actually pretty nice. All knowledge required for this is high school math). This allows us to split the passphrase into shares. These shares will be given to people you trust together with the encrypted key. t out of n shares are required to restore the passphrase.

1shares=$(echo "$passphrase" | ssss-split -q -t 2 -n 5) 

Again we can iterate over the lines in $shares and generate QR codes like shown above.

Restoring the Passphrase and the GPG Key

Restoring the key is pretty simple. I used zbarcam for this.

1zbarcam --raw > scan.base64
2base64 -d < scan.base64 | paperkey --pubring pub.gpg > secret-key.gpg

You simply scan the codes one by one and write it to a file. zbarcam will add a new line after each scan. This is not a problem though because we used base64 encoding which is very portable. It will just ignore the new lines. Then we pass the decoded data to paperkey which required the public key to reconstruct the secret GPG key. When restoring the GPG, you can get your public key from one of the key servers.

We also need t out of n shares to get back to the passphrase.

1ssss-combine -t 2

Enter two shares by scanning them or simply by reading and typing them. You will see the passphrase you will need to import the secret key:

1gpg --import secret-key.gpg


Printing and Linux can still be challenging in 2021. I used the Ubuntu 20.10 live CD and a Brother printer. CUPS worked flawlessly via USB and allowed me to print. In comparison, the CUPS installation on the Debian live CD was broken and even crashed with a segmentation fault. After installing the USB printer via the CUPS web interface, I was able to print all the PDFs.


I showed how to backup huge GPG keys. The same procedure can also be used to backup other bigger secrets (> 128 bytes). If you have secrets which are smaller than 128 ASCII characters then you can use ssss directly. Each QR code should be printed on a separate page. This makes it easier to scan them.

I think I also covered all of my initial goals. The encrypted keys are now stored on paper and can be decrypted by t people even if I love my memory. The tools used are also so common that it is easy to do this on an air gapped laptop.

Disclaimer: Please test your backup procedure multiple times. This means print your secrets and then test whether you can reconstruct your key and have access. I know it is tedious, but a backup which does not work is worthless!

TL;DR: The Complete Script

Here is the complete script I used. Please adapt it to your needs and do not blindly copy it:

 3# Combine shares of the password: ssss-combine -t 2
 4# Combine paperkey: zbarimg --raw paperkey_split*.pdf | base64 -d | paperkey --pubring pub.gpg > secret-key.gpg
 7apt install -y paperkey qrencode gnupg pwgen ssss ghostscript a2ps 
 8mkdir -p output/
 9rm output/*
11pw=$(pwgen 100 1)
12echo "Secret Password which will be split into shares: $pw"
14echo "Exporting secret key. Change password to the above using passwd and save."
15gpg --edit-key $key_id
16gpg --export-secret-keys $key_id > secret-key.gpg
18paperkey --secret-key=secret-key.gpg --output-type=raw | base64 -w 76 > $paperkey
19paperkey_sum=$(sha256sum "$paperkey" | cut -d " " -f 1)
20split $paperkey -d --lines=10 --additional-suffix=.base64 output/paperkey_split
22echo "Generating paperkey"
23paperkey --secret-key=secret-key.gpg | a2ps -R --columns=1 -f 10 --margin=0 --no-header -o - | gs \
24   -o "output/paperkey.pdf" -sDEVICE=pdfwrite -g5950x8420 -
26echo "Generating key splits"
27for split in output/paperkey_split*.base64; do
28  filename=$(basename -- "$split")
29  name="${filename%.*}"
30  split_sum=$(sha256sum "$split" | cut -d " " -f 1)
31  qrencode --read-from="$split" -l L --type=EPS --size 6 --output "output/$name.eps"
32  gs -q -o "output/$name.pdf" -sDEVICE=pdfwrite -g5950x8420 \
33     -c "/Helvetica findfont 15 scalefont setfont 40 800 moveto (QR-Code $name) show
34         /Helvetica findfont 12 scalefont setfont 40 700 moveto (SHA256 of split: $split_sum) show
35         /Helvetica findfont 12 scalefont setfont 40 680 moveto (SHA256 of paperkey: $paperkey_sum) show" \
36     -f "output/$name.eps"
37  rm "$split" "output/$name.eps"
40echo "Generating shares"
41shares=$(echo "$pw" | ssss-split -q -t 2 -n 5) 
42echo "$shares"
43while IFS= read -r share; do
44    name=share-$(cut -d '-' -f 1 <<< "$share")
45    qrencode -l L --type=EPS --size 10 --output "output/$name.eps" <<< "$share";
46    gs -q -o "output/$name.pdf" -sDEVICE=pdfwrite -g5950x8420 \
47       -c "/Helvetica findfont 15 scalefont setfont 40 800 moveto (QR-Code $name) show
48           /Helvetica findfont 12 scalefont setfont 40 600 moveto ($share) show" \
49       -f "output/$name.eps"
50    rm "output/$name.eps"
51done <<< "$shares"

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