Home > Confidentiality, Encryption, GnuPG, Integrity, OpenPGP, Security > Generating a PGP key using GnuPG

Generating a PGP key using GnuPG

Generating a PGP using GnuPG (GPG) is quite simple.  The following shows my recommendations for generating a PGP key today.

$ gpg --gen-key 
gpg (GnuPG) 1.4.16; Copyright (C) 2013 Free Software Foundation, Inc.
This is free software: you are free to change and redistribute it.
There is NO WARRANTY, to the extent permitted by law.
Please select what kind of key you want:
 (1) RSA and RSA (default)
 (2) DSA and Elgamal
 (3) DSA (sign only)
 (4) RSA (sign only)
Your selection? 1
RSA keys may be between 1024 and 4096 bits long.
What keysize do you want? (2048) 3072
Requested keysize is 3072 bits
Please specify how long the key should be valid.
 0 = key does not expire
  = key expires in n days
 w = key expires in n weeks
 m = key expires in n months
 y = key expires in n years
Key is valid for? (0) 1y
Key expires at Tue 16 Jun 2015 10:32:06 AM EDT
Is this correct? (y/N) y
You need a user ID to identify your key; the software constructs the user ID
from the Real Name, Comment and Email Address in this form:
 "Heinrich Heine (Der Dichter) <heinrichh@duesseldorf.de>"
Real name: Given Surname
Email address: given.surname@example.com
Comment: Example
You selected this USER-ID:
 "Given Surname (Example) <given.surname@example.com>"
Change (N)ame, (C)omment, (E)mail or (O)kay/(Q)uit? o
You need a Passphrase to protect your secret key.
We need to generate a lot of random bytes. It is a good idea to perform
some other action (type on the keyboard, move the mouse, utilize the
disks) during the prime generation; this gives the random number
generator a better chance to gain enough entropy.
We need to generate a lot of random bytes. It is a good idea to perform
some other action (type on the keyboard, move the mouse, utilize the
disks) during the prime generation; this gives the random number
generator a better chance to gain enough entropy.
gpg: key 2CFA0010 marked as ultimately trusted
public and secret key created and signed.
gpg: checking the trustdb
gpg: 3 marginal(s) needed, 1 complete(s) needed, PGP trust model
gpg: depth: 0 valid: 2 signed: 49 trust: 0-, 0q, 0n, 0m, 0f, 2u
gpg: depth: 1 valid: 49 signed: 60 trust: 48-, 0q, 0n, 0m, 1f, 0u
gpg: depth: 2 valid: 8 signed: 17 trust: 8-, 0q, 0n, 0m, 0f, 0u
gpg: next trustdb check due at 2014-09-09
pub 3072R/2CFA0010 2014-06-16 [expires: 2015-06-16]
 Key fingerprint = F81D 16F8 3750 307C D090 4DC1 4D05 E6EF 2CFA 0010
uid Given Surname (Example) <given.surname@example.com>
sub 3072R/48083419 2014-06-16 [expires: 2015-06-16]

The above shows the complete exchange between GPG and myself.  I’ll point out a couple of selections I made and explain why I made those choices.

Key type selection

I selected the default selection of two RSA keys.  The keys used for signing and encryption will both be RSA which is strong right now.  DSA has been proven to be weak in certain instances and should be avoided in this context.  I have no comment on ElGamal as I’ve not done research here.  Ultimately the choice is up to you.

Bit strength

I’ve selected 3072 instead of the default 2048 here.  I recommend this as the minimum bit strength as this provides 128 bits of security as compared to 112 bits of security with 2048.  128 bits of security should be secure beyond 2031 as per NIST SP 800-57, Part 1, Rev 3.

Key expiration

By default, I make my keys expire after a year.  This is a fail-safe and can be later modified before the expiration to extend the expiration another year.  This makes sure the key will self destruct if you ever lose control of it.

Identifying information

You’ll  now be asked to add your name and email address.  This should be self-explanatory.

Key revocation

Once you have completed your key generation now is the time to generate the key revocation file.  If you ever lose control of your key you should immediately upload this file to the public key servers so everyone using your key will know that it has [potentially] been compromised.  Once you’ve generated this revocation just keep it somewhere safe.  You can even print it out and keep it locked up somewhere.  It’s important to do this this ahead of time as you may not be able to do this later.  You’ll obviously want to substitute your own keyid for 2CFA0010.

$ gpg --gen-revoke 2CFA0010
sec 3072R/2CFA0010 2014-06-16 Given Surname (Example) <given.surname@example.com>
Create a revocation certificate for this key? (y/N) y
Please select the reason for the revocation:
 0 = No reason specified
 1 = Key has been compromised
 2 = Key is superseded
 3 = Key is no longer used
 Q = Cancel
(Probably you want to select 1 here)
Your decision? 1
Enter an optional description; end it with an empty line:
Reason for revocation: Key has been compromised
(No description given)
Is this okay? (y/N) y
You need a passphrase to unlock the secret key for
user: "Given Surname (Example) <given.surname@example.com>"
3072-bit RSA key, ID 2CFA0010, created 2014-06-16
ASCII armored output forced.
Revocation certificate created.
Please move it to a medium which you can hide away; if Mallory gets
access to this certificate he can use it to make your key unusable.
It is smart to print this certificate and store it away, just in case
your media become unreadable. But have some caution: The print system of
your machine might store the data and make it available to others!
Version: GnuPG v1
Comment: A revocation certificate should follow

Proper key storage

Generally speaking, your private PGP key is stored on your computer encrypted.  It is protected by your normal security measures of your computer and whatever password you set.  There is a better way.  Use a hardware security module (HSM) like a Yubikey Neo, OpenPGP card, or CryptoStick to protect  your private key from disclosure.

Publishing your public key

Now that you have your PGP keys you’ll want to publish your public key to the key servers so others can easily obtain it to validate your signatures.

$ gpg  --keyserver hkps://hkps.pool.sks-keyservers.net --send-keys 2CFA0010

You’ll obviously want to substitute your own keyid for 2CFA0010.  This command will send your key to the SKS public key servers which will then replicate your key around the world in a few hours.


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  1. 2014-06-17 at 05:12 EDT

    Thanks for the informative post!

    WHen you say to use a Yubikey or similar, do you mean in conjunction with gpg, or for login and encryption of your hard disk drive?


    • 2014-06-17 at 09:59 EDT

      The Yubikey Neo now supports PGP but it requires a little hacking. I know a couple of people that have their Neo setup to now do OTP auth and PGP. A nice little feature. One day mine will too.

  1. 2014-06-16 at 11:32 EDT

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