Who hasn’t been guilty of reusing passwords across multiple online services. If you make a habit out of reusing passwords, it’s pretty easy to get pwned1 not for just one service but many all at once. The modern day solution is to use a password manager. This article walks you through setting up password management across Linux and Android devices.

Finding a Password Manager

There’s no shortage of password managers to choose from2. Your choice of password manager is dependent on what devices you use and what your typical workflow looks like. Here’s what a set of basic password manager requirements looks like:

  1. Android support
  2. Linux support
  3. A command line interface

pass is one of the best open source options around. The pass homepage has a nice summary of the tool:

Password management should be simple and follow Unix philosophy. With pass, each password lives inside of a gpg encrypted file whose filename is the title of the website or resource that requires the password. These encrypted files may be organized into meaningful folder hierarchies, copied from computer to computer, and, in general, manipulated using standard command line file management utilities.

pass checks requirements 2-3 off. The actively maintained Password Store app on Android meets requirement 1 (more on that later).

Install pass using your Linux distribution’s package manager before moving on to the next section.

Setting Up a GPG Key

GnuPG

To work with pass, you need a gpg-id. If you need to make an ID, the GNU Privacy Guard Manual1 has you covered. Here’s a quick summary of how to generate a 4096 bit RSA key:

  1. Open a terminal.
  2. Enter gpg --full-generate-key
  3. Press Enter to select the default RSA and RSA option.
  4. At the prompt, specify a key size of 4096 and press Enter.
  5. Press Enter to select the default of no expiration date.
  6. Follow the prompts to enter your ID info.
  7. Enter a secure password3.
  8. Enter gpg --list-keys to view your newly minted key.

GPG Key Generation

Password Database Creation and Git Support

To initialize pass, call its init function with your public GPG key as the argument. You can find your key by running gpg --list-keys. In the screenshot, the public key is EBAA65BDAF7BF5D770070F013BE52220A00B08A9. Here’s how you initialize the pass database:

pass init EBAA65BDAF7BF5D770070F013BE52220A00B08A9

pass init creates a .password-store directory in your home directory. You can move this directory wherever you like. Just remember to tell pass about it by setting the PASSWORD_STORE_DIR environment variable.

One of the nice features of pass is its git integration. You can perform git operations on the password store database using the syntax

pass git GIT_ARGS...

Git operations apply to the .password-store database directory previously created on init. To track changes to the database with git:

pass git init

pass will automatically create commits whenever you add, edit, remove, etc. passwords via the pass CLI!

Password Generation and Storage

pass has password generation built-in. To generate and store passwords, the syntax is:

pass generate [--no-symbols, -n] [--clip, -c] [--force, -f] PASS_NAME PASS_LEN

Some websites only accept alphanumeric passwords in which case the --no-symbols option comes in handy. The --clip option is useful if you want to generate and simultaneously copy to the clipboard the new password4. Password insertion, removal, and editing are all supported. See the manpage5 for the details.

pass gives a lot of flexibility in how you organize your passwords. For example, you might generate these passwords:

pass generate games/runescape 20
pass generate services/facebook 20
pass generate services/linkedin 20
pass generate services/github 20
pass generate services/gitlab 20
pass generate email/ivan.eduardo.guerra@gmail.com 20

Running pass at the terminal (or pass ls), You’d see the following printout:

Password Store
|-- email
|   `-- ivan.eduardo.guerra@gmail.com
|-- games
|   `-- runescape
`-- services
    |-- facebook
    |-- github
    |-- gitlab
    `-- linkedin

You get full control over how you organize your passwords! When it comes time to login to one of the services, just show the password with the command

pass [show] PASS_NAME

Better yet, let pass copy the password to your clipboard:

pass -c PASS_NAME

Beyond Passwords

If you take a look at the .password-store directory, you’ll notice that there is a *.gpg per password. That is, pass is encrypting a flat text file that when decrypted contains a password on the first line. The developer of pass took advantage of this fact and made it easy to store arbitrary info along with a password. This is the “multiline” feature of pass. For example, if you wanted to edit games/runescape to add additional info:

pass edit games/runescape

pass will bring up the editor pointed to by your EDITOR environment variable. From there, you can put your password on the first line and all other secrets (for example, username and recovery questions/answers) on subsequent lines. Note, you can also use the --multiline option with the insert command to store secret data:

pass insert --multiline misc/super_secret

Remotely Hosting the Password Database

Of course, before your can access your password database remotely you need to host it somewhere. Some people host their own git instances others may use online hosting services like GitHub. You might ask, is your password database safe if it’s at all reachable from the Internet? To quote the Password Store6 wiki:

Yes and no. The password themselves are safe, since they are stored in an encrypted fashion. They are secure as long as your GPG key’s secret part is safe. However, the repo leaks the names of the entries: a password named web/site.com will be stored in the file web/site.com.gpg. As a consequence, anyone who can see your public repo can see the name of your passwords, which is not so great for privacy: if a file is named web/pornhub.com.gpg, this might give a hint about your browsing habits. Moreover, the size of the files might also gives a clue about which accounts might have small passwords. If a file is very small, chances are that your password is small too. An attacker could use this information to select which account of yours is most likely to have a weak password.

If you want to sync passwords between your phone and PC, you need to host the password database on some online service. It’s up to you to decide if the convenience of password syncing beats out the danger of exposing your password names to an attacker.

Whether you’re self hosting a git instance or using a service like GitHub, the pass commands for syncing a remote database with a local one remain the same:

pass git remote add origin GIT_URL
pass git push origin master

These two commands sync your remote instance with your local password database.

Android Support

Password Store

Android support was one of the original requirements. pass is just a Unix password management command line utility. Luckily, the Password Store6 Android app exists. With Password Store, you can sync with a remote server hosting the .password-store database. Working in conjunction with Password Store is the OpenKeychain7 app with which you can store your GPG secret key on mobile.

Transferring your private key to OpenKeychain is the first step. OpenKeychain recommends8 you use the following commands:

export GPG_TTY=$(tty)

# generate a strong random password
gpg --armor --gen-random 1 20

# encrypt key, use password above when asked
gpg --armor --export-secret-keys YOUREMAILADDRESS | gpg --armor --symmetric --output mykey.sec.asc

The first command generates a one time password. The second encrypts the private key tied to YOUREMAILADDRESS and outputs it to the file mykey.sec.asc. When prompted to enter a passphrase, make sure you enter the password that was previously generated. You can transfer mykey.sec.asc to your phone and tell OpenKeychain to decrypt it by selecting Keys -> Import from File. Don’t text, email, etc. the file password. Manually input the password when prompted by the app!

Now all that’s left is setting up your password database in Password Store. Here are the steps:

  1. Open Password Store on mobile.
  2. Select Clone Remote Repo.
  3. In the Server section, enter your repository address and branch name.
  4. In the Authentication Mode section, select your mode of authentication. If using GitHub, select the SSH key option.
  5. Follow the prompts to generate an SSH key. Upload the public portion of the key to your GitHub account9.

That’s it. You should see your password database appear in the app. When you select a password, Password Store will prompt you for your GPG key passphrase. Password Store is smart enough to show you not only passwords but any other secrets you may have hidden in the store (see Beyond Passwords)!

Conclusion

Managing dozens of passwords isn’t easy. Password managers are here to make the task more manageable (pun intended). You want your password manager to complement your workflow. pass in tandem with Password Store and OpenKeychain meets the need on Android and Linux.


  1. Have you been pwned↩︎ ↩︎

  2. Wikipedia lists over 20 password managers! ↩︎

  3. The Arch Linux Wiki has some good advice on choosing secure passwords ↩︎

  4. pass uses xclip to carry out copies to the clipboard. xclip is available in the package repository of most Linux distros. ↩︎

  5. pass’s manpage has some nice usage examples that show how to generate, insert, remove, and edit passwords. ↩︎

  6. See the Password Store project page. ↩︎ ↩︎

  7. See the OpenKeychain project page. ↩︎

  8. “What’s the best way to transfer my own key to OpenKeychain?” ↩︎

  9. Adding a new SSH key to your GitHub account ↩︎