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Published: Thu, 22 Sep 2016 16:13:21 -0400


keysafe beta release

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 16:13:21 -0400

After a month of development, keysafe 0.20160922 is released, and ready for beta testing. And it needs servers.

With this release, the whole process of backing up and restoring a gpg secret key to keysafe servers is implemented. Keysafe is started at desktop login, and will notice when a gpg secret key has been created, and prompt to see if it should back it up.

At this point, I recommend only using keysafe for lower-value secret keys, for several reasons:

  • There could be some bug that prevents keysafe from restoring a backup.
  • Keysafe's design has not been completely reviewed for security.
  • None of the keysafe servers available so far or planned to be deployed soon meet all of the security requirements for a recommended keysafe server. While server security is only the initial line of defense, it's still important.

Currently the only keysafe server is one that I'm running myself. Two more keysafe servers are needed for keysafe to really be usable, and I can't run those.

If you're interested in running a keysafe server, read the keysafe server requirements and get in touch.

PoW bucket bloom: throttling anonymous clients with proof of work, token buckets, and bloom filters

Tue, 13 Sep 2016 01:14:47 -0400

An interesting side problem in keysafe's design is that keysafe servers, which run as tor hidden services, allow anonymous data storage and retrieval. While each object is limited to 64 kb, what's to stop someone from making many requests and using it to store some big files? The last thing I want is a git-annex keysafe special remote. ;-) I've done a mash-up of three technologies to solve this, that I think is perhaps somewhat novel. Although it could be entirely old hat, or even entirely broken. (All I know so far is that the code compiles.) It uses proof of work, token buckets, and bloom filters. Each request can have a proof of work attached to it, which is just a value that, when hashed with a salt, starts with a certain number of 0's. The salt includes the ID of the object being stored or retrieved. The server maintains a list of token buckets. The first can be accessed without any proof of work, and subsequent ones need progressively more proof of work to be accessed. Clients will start by making a request without a PoW, and that will often succeed, but when the first token bucket is being drained too fast by other load, the server will reject the request and demand enough proof of work to allow access to the second token bucket. And so on down the line if necessary. At the worst, a client may have to do 8-16 minutes of work to access a keysafe server that is under heavy load, which would not be ideal, but is acceptible for keysafe since it's not run very often. If the client provides a PoW good enough to allow accessing the last token bucket, the request will be accepted even when that bucket is drained. The client has done plenty of work at this point, so it would be annoying to reject it. To prevent an attacker that is willing to burn CPU from abusing this loophole to flood the server with object stores, the server delays until the last token bucket fills back up. So far so simple really, but this has a big problem: What prevents a proof of work from being reused? An attacker could generate a single PoW good enough to access all the token buckets, and flood the server with requests using it, and so force everyone else to do excessive amounts of work to use the server. Guarding against that DOS is where the bloom filters come in. The server generates a random request ID, which has to be included in the PoW salt and sent back by the client along with the PoW. The request ID is added to a bloom filter, which the server can use to check if the client is providing a request ID that it knows about. And a second bloom filter is used to check if a request ID has been used by a client before, which prevents the DOS. Of course, when dealing with bloom filters, it's important to consider what happens when there's a rare false positive match. This is not a problem with the first bloom filter, because a false positive only lets some made-up request ID be used. A false positive in the second bloom filter will cause the server to reject the client's proof of work. But the server can just request more work, or send a new request ID, and the client will follow along. The other gotcha with bloom filters is that filling them up too far sets too many bits, and so false positive rates go up. To deal with this, keysafe just keeps count of how many request IDs it has generated, and once it gets to be too many to fit in a bloom filter, it makes a new, empty bloom filter and starts storing request IDs in it. The old bloom filter is still checked too, providing a grace period for old request IDs to be used. Using bloom filters that occupy around 32 mb of RAM, this rotation only has to be done every million requests of so. But, that rotation opens up another DOS! An attacker could cause lots of request IDs to be generated, and so force the server to rotate its bloom filters too quickly, which would prevent any requests from being accepted. To solve this DOS, just use one more token bucket, to limit the rate that request IDs can be generated, so that the time it would take an attacker to force a [...]

late summer

Tue, 30 Aug 2016 21:15:40 -0400

With days beginning to shorten toward fall, my house is in initial power saving mode. Particularly, the internet gateway is powered off overnight. Still running electric lights until bedtime, and still using the inverter and other power without much conservation during the day.

Indeed, I had two laptops running cpu-melting keysafe benchmarks for much of today and one of them had to charge up from empty too. That's why the house power is a little low, at 11.0 volts now, despite over 30 amp-hours of power having been produced on this mostly clear day. (1 week average is 18.7 amp-hours)

September/October is the tricky time where it's easy to fall off a battery depletion cliff and be stuck digging out for a long time. So time to start dusting off the conservation habits after summer's excess.

I think this is the first time I've mentioned any details of living off grid with a bare minimum of PV capacity in over 4 years. Solar has a lot of older posts about it, and I'm going to note down the typical milestones and events over the next 8 months.

hiking the Roan

Sun, 28 Aug 2016 22:10:35 -0400

Three moments from earlier this week..


Sprawled under a tree after three hours of hiking with a heavy, water-filled pack, I look past my feet at six ranges of mountains behind mountains behind flowers.


From my campsite, I can see the rest of the path of the Appalachian Trail across the Roan balds, to Big Hump mountain. It seems close enough to touch, but not this trip. Good to have a goal.


Near sunset, land and sky merge as the mist moves in.

keysafe alpha release

Fri, 19 Aug 2016 19:48:52 -0400

Keysafe securely backs up a gpg secret key or other short secret to the cloud. But not yet. Today's alpha release only supports storing the data locally, and I still need to finish tuning the argon2 hash difficulties with modern hardware. Other than that, I'm fairly happy with how it's turned out.

Keysafe is written in Haskell, and many of the data types in it keep track of the estimated CPU time needed to create, decrypt, and brute-force them. Running that through a AWS SPOT pricing cost model lets keysafe estimate how much an attacker would need to spend to crack your password.

(Above is for the password "makesad spindle stick")

If you'd like to be an early adopter, install it like this:

sudo apt-get install haskell-stack libreadline-dev libargon2-0-dev zenity
stack install keysafe

Run ~/.local/bin/keysafe --backup --store-local to back up a gpg key to ~/.keysafe/objects/local/

I still need to tune the argon2 hash difficulty, and I need benchmark data to do so. If you have a top of the line laptop or server class machine that's less than a year old, send me a benchmark:

~/.local/bin/keysafe --benchmark | mail -s benchmark

Bonus announcement: is my quick Haskell interface to the C version of the zxcvbn password strength estimation library.

PS: Past 50% of my goal on Patreon!


Thu, 04 Aug 2016 20:24:14 -0400

Have you ever thought about using a gpg key to encrypt something, but didn't due to worries that you'd eventually lose the secret key? Or maybe you did use a gpg key to encrypt something and lost the key. There are nice tools like paperkey to back up gpg keys, but they require things like printers, and a secure place to store the backups.

I feel that simple backup and restore of gpg keys (and encryption keys generally) is keeping some users from using gpg. If there was a nice automated solution for that, distributions could come preconfigured to generate encryption keys and use them for backups etc. I know this is a missing peice in the git-annex assistant, which makes it easy to generate a gpg key to encrypt your data, but can't help you back up the secret key.

So, I'm thinking about storing secret keys in the cloud. Which seems scary to me, since when I was a Debian Developer, my gpg key could have been used to compromise millions of systems. But this is not about developers, it's about users, and so trading off some security for some ease of use may be appropriate. Especially since the alternative is no security. I know that some folks back up their gpg keys in the cloud using DropBox.. We can do better.

I've thought up a design for this, called keysafe. The synopsis of how it works is:

The secret key is split into three shards, and each is uploaded to a server run by a different entity. Any two of the shards are sufficient to recover the original key. So any one server can go down and you can still recover the key.

A password is used to encrypt the key. For the servers to access your key, two of them need to collude together, and they then have to brute force the password. The design of keysafe makes brute forcing extra difficult by making it hard to know which shards belong to you.

Indeed the more people that use keysafe, the harder it becomes to brute-force anyone's key!

I could really use some additional reviews and feedback on the design by experts.

This project is being sponsored by Purism and by my Patreon supporters. By the way, I'm 15% of the way to my Patreon goal after one day!


Wed, 03 Aug 2016 15:08:20 -0400

I've been funded for two years by the DataLad project to work on git-annex. This has been a super excellent gig; they provided funding and feedback on ways git-annex could be improved, and I had a large amount of flexability to decide what to work on in git-annex. Also plenty of spare time to work on new projects like propellor, concurrent-output, and scroll. It was an awesome way to spend the last two years of my twenty years of free software.

That funding is running out. I'd like to continue this great streak of working on the free software projects that are important to me. I'd normally dip into my savings at this point and keep on going until some other source of funding turned up. But, my savings are about to be obliterated, since I'm buying the place where I've had so much success working distraction-free.

So, I've started a Patreon page to fund my ongoing work. Please check it out and contribute if you want to.

Some details about projects I want to work on this fall:

PocketCHIP quick review

Sun, 31 Jul 2016 18:26:35 -0400

PocketCHIP is the pocket sized Linux terminal I always used to want. Which is to say, it runs (nearly) stock Debian, X, etc, it has a physical keyboard, and the hardware and software is (nearly) non-proprietary and very hackable. Best of all, it's fun and it encourages playful learning.

It's also clunky and flawed and constructed out of cheap components. This keeps it from being something I'd actually carry around in my pocket and use regularly. The smart thing they've done though is embrace these limitations, targeting it at the hobbiest, and not trying to compete with smart phones. The PocketCHIP is its own little device in its own little niche.


Unless you're into hardware hacking and want to hook wires up to the GPIO pins, the best hardware feature is the complete keyboard, with even Escape and Control and arrow keys. You can ssh around and run vi on it, run your favorite REPL (I use ghci) to do quick programming, etc. The keyboard is small and a little strange, but you get used to it quickly; your QWERTY muscle memory is transferrable to it. I had fun installing nethack on it and handing it to my sister who had never played nethack before, to watch her learn to play.

The screen resolution is 480x272, which is pretty tiny. And, it's a cheap resistive touchscreen, with a bezil around it. This makes it very hard to use scroll bars and icons near the edge of the screen. The customized interface that ships with it avoids these problems, and so I've been using that for now. When I have time, I plan to put a fullscreen window manager on it, and write a pdmenu menu configuration for it, so everything can be driven using the keyboard.

I also have not installed Debian from scratch on it yet. This would be tricky because it uses a somewhat patched kernel (to support the display and wifi). The shipped distribution is sadly not entirely free software. There are some nonfree drivers and firmwares. And, they included a non-free gaming environment on it (a very nice one for part of the audience, that allows editing the games, but non-free nevertheless). They did do a good job of packaging up all the custom software they include on it, although they don't seem to have published source packages for everything.

(They might be infringing my GPL copyright of flash-kernel by distributing a modified version without source. I say "might" because flash-kernel is a pile of shell scripts, so you could probably extract the (probably trivial) modifications. Still.. Also, they seem to have patched network-manager in some way and I wasn't able to find the corresponding source.)

The battery life is around 5 hours. Unfortunately the "sleep" mode only turns off the backlight and maybe wifi, and leaves the rest of the system running. This and the slightly awkward form factor too big to really comfortably fit in a pocket limit the use of PocketCHIP quite a bit. Perhaps the sleeping will get sorted out, and perhaps I'll delete the GPIO breakout board from the top of mine to make it more pocket sized.

Re: Debugging over email

Tue, 19 Jul 2016 12:57:07 -0400

Lars wrote about the remote debugging problem.

I write free software and I have some users. My primary support channels are over email and IRC, which means I do not have direct access to the system where my software runs. When one of my users has a problem, we go through one or more cycles of them reporting what they see and me asking them for more information, or asking them to try this thing or that thing and report results. This can be quite frustrating.

I want, nay, need to improve this.

This is also something I've thought about on and off, that affects me most every day.

I've found that building the test suite into the program, such that users can run it at any time, is a great way to smoke out problems. If a user thinks they have problem A but the test suite explodes, or also turns up problems B C D, then I have much more than the user's problem report to go on. git annex test is a good example of this.

Asking users to provide a recipe to reproduce the bug is very helpful; I do it in the git-annex bug report template, and while not all users do, and users often provide a reproducion recipe that doesn't quite work, it's great in triage to be able to try a set of steps without thinking much and see if you can reproduce the bug. So I tend to look at such bug reports first, and solve them more quickly, which tends towards a virtuous cycle.

I've noticed that reams of debugging output, logs, test suite failures, etc can be useful once I'm well into tracking a problem down. But during triage, they make it harder to understand what the problem actually is. Information overload. Being able to reproduce the problem myself is far more valuable than this stuff.

I've noticed that once I am in a position to run some commands in the environment that has the problem, it seems to be much easier to solve it than when I'm trying to get the user to debug it remotely. This must be partly psychological?

Partly, I think that the feeling of being at a remove from the system, makes it harder to think of what to do. And then there are the times where the user pastes some output of running some commands and I mentally skip right over an important part of it. Because I didn't think to run one of the commands myself.

I wonder if it would be helpful to have a kind of ssh equivilant, where all commands get vetted by the remote user before being run on their system. (And the user can also see command output before it gets sent back, to NACK sending of personal information.) So, it looks and feels a lot like you're in a mosh session to the user's computer (which need not have a public IP or have an open ssh port at all), although one with a lot of lag and where rm -rf / doesn't go through.

twenty years of free software -- part 13 past and future

Mon, 11 Jul 2016 20:07:54 -0400

This series has focused on new projects. I could have said more about significant work that didn't involve starting new projects. A big example was when I added dh to debhelper, which led to changes in a large percentage of debian/rules files. And I've contributed to many other free software projects.

I guess I've focused on new projects becuase it's easier to remember things I've started myself. And because a new project is more wide open, with more scope for interesting ideas, especially when it's free software being created just because I want to, with no expectations of success.

But starting lots of your own projects also makes you responsible for maintaining a lot of stuff. Ten years ago I had dozens of projects that I'd started and was still maintaining. Over time I started pulling away from Debian, with active projects increasingly not connected with it. By the end, I'd left and stopped working on the old projects. Nearly everything from my first decade in free software was passed on to new maintainers. It's good to get out from under old projects and concentrate on new things.

I saved propellor for last in this series, because I think it may point toward the future of my software. While git-annex was the project that taught me Haskell, propellor's design is much more deeply influenced by the Haskell viewpoint.

Absorbing that viewpoint has itself been a big undertaking for me this decade. It's like I was coasting along feeling at the top of my game and wham got hit by the type theory bus. And now I see that I was stuck in a rut before, and begin to get a feeling of many new possibilities.

That's a good feeling to have, twenty years in.