Not having a cross platform, easy to use, open sourced password manager has always been a pet peeve of mine. I started playing with Keybase and pass a while back, and was wondering whether I could build the password manager I wanted out of these pieces.

Firstly, I wanted a solution that is:

  1. Open Source
  2. Simple
  3. Browser integration
  4. Shareable with other users
  5. Able to store more than website passwords
  6. Per Device keys (details below)


Finally got introduced to pass by my colleagues, which was a refreshing solution. It is open source and simple - each password is merely a PGP encrypted text file. It supports multiple PGP keys, and can organise passwords using OS filesystem hierarchy.

This means that I can encrypt different folders with different keys (work, personal). It also allows me to share secrets with colleagues by having separate directory that is encrypted with all team member’s keys. For example, I can have a password store that looks like this:

├── family
├── personal
└── work

work is encrypted with mine + colleagues keys, personal is encrypted only with my keys, and family is encrypted with mine + family members’ keys.

Browser integration is provided by browserpass, which works on Chrome on Linux / OS X.

Why device keys?

I wanted device specified keys so that I can revoked a device key if the device goes missing, but still retain the ability to access my passwords using other devices in my possession. For example, if I have 3 devices (work desktop, home desktop, laptop) and I lose my laptop, I can very quickly revoke the laptop’s key and re-encrypt my password store.


Trust in this system is (partly) provided by Keybase. Keybase already has a similar structure (device keys), but unfortunately they use NaCl keys which don’t work with pass. I used keybase cli to generate (and sign) device PGP keys, which anyone can verify by going to my Keybase account. Each device PGP key is generated locally and signed by the device NaCl key, which never leaves the device. Anyone can verify my keys by visiting Keybase.

Step by step instructions

  1. Set up a Keybase account.
  2. Install Keybase client on each device. This will ensure that your device has a NaCl key provisioned for it.
  3. On each device, generate a PGP key:
    keybase pgp gen --multi
  4. Keybase will generate a PGP key and send it up to keybase servers. It will also import it into your local keyring. Check if it is imported by running
    gpg -K --fingerprint

    and comparing it with with the secret keys in keybase

    keybase pgp list

    NOTE: PGP key ids shown can be in 1 of 3 formats - short, long or fingerprint. Short and long are the last (note last) 8 and 16 hex digits of the fingerprint, respectively.

  5. If your secret key is not imported into your local keyring, bring it in with:
    keybase pgp export -q <key-id> -s | gpg --import
  6. Repeat above steps for each of your device
  7. On each device, now pull in all the public keys of other devices. This is needed so that each device can encrypt your store for other devices.
    keybase pgp export -q <key-id> | gpg --import
  8. When all the devices has their own PGP keys, initialise your password store. Use the key-ids of all of your devices, e.g.:
    pass init -p personal <key-id-1> <key-id-2> ...

    This should create a password store encrypted with all your device keys.

  9. Follow pass documentation on inserting passwords into your store.
  10. Install browserpass to easily use your passwords on websites.


A major drawback of passwords is that they are static. An attacker gaining control of both my password store and a device key can very easily brute force the passphrase to gain access to all the passwords.

For example, if I lose my device which contains both the key and the password store, revoking the device key does not prevent an attacker from gaining access to all passwords in the store, which are valid up to the point I lose my laptop.

This is an inherent drawback of passwords. The only fix is change all the passwords encrypted in store when you revoke a key. That way, an attacker will only gain access to the old passwords, which will be useless to him. Unfortunately at this time there is no easy way to do that across all sites.

An alternative way is to keep the key and the store separate from each other; they only come together when you need to decrypt the password. For example, the store can live on a Keybase Filesystem (KBFS) share (which is streamed to the device). If you lose the device, you can very quickly stop access by revoking the device key, revoking the device’s access to the share, and re-encrypting the store.

One way to achieve this is by moving the password store to kbfs and symlink it back to where pass expects it:

mv ~/.password-store/personal /keybase/private/<username>/password-store/personal
ln -s /keybase/private/<username>/password-store/personal ~/.password-store/personal


Figuring this out took around an afternoon, which got me thinking:

  • Why is this so hard?
  • Why doesn’t each device comes with a key by default?
  • Why are we not using hardware devices (maybe TPM) to do the above, by default?
  • How can a non-technical user figure all this out?
  • And finally, (again) why is decent security so hard?

We already have all the technology pieces, but it seems like there is still work to be done to ‘glue’ all the pieces together into something an average user will understand. Many solutions are closed source or silo’ed to a particular platform, and by that limitation you can’t trust data to it.

Many thanks to projects like pass, keybase, keepass, lastpass, chrome/firefox password manager, that helps bring encryption to the masses. Hopefully one day we can have the password nirvana I dream about.