April 4, 2018

Nitrokey Digital Tokens for Linux Kernel Developers

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Linux kernel
The Linux Foundation will provide Linux maintainers with a free digital token to help improve the security of their PGP keys. Learn more.

The Linux Foundation IT team has been working to improve the code integrity of git repositories hosted at kernel.org by promoting the use of PGP-signed git tags and commits. Doing so allows anyone to easily verify that git repositories have not been altered or tampered with no matter from which worldwide mirror they may have been cloned. If the digital signature on your cloned repository matches the PGP key belonging to Linus Torvalds or any other maintainer, then you can be assured that what you have on your computer is the exact replica of the kernel code without any omissions or additions.

To help promote the use of PGP signatures in Linux kernel development, we now offer a detailed guide within the kernel documentation tree:

Further, we are happy to announce a new special program sponsored by The Linux Foundation in partnership with Nitrokey -- the developer and manufacturer of smartcard-compatible digital tokens capable of storing private keys and performing PGP operations on-chip. Under this program, any developer who is listed as a maintainer in the MAINTAINERS file, or who has a kernel.org account can qualify for a free digital token to help improve the security of their PGP keys. The cost of the device, including any taxes, shipping and handling will be covered by The Linux Foundation.

To participate in this program, please access the special storefront on the Nitrokey website:

Who qualifies for this program?

To qualify for the program, you need to have an account at kernel.org or have your email address listed in the MAINTAINERS file (following the "M:" heading). If you do not currently qualify but think you should, the easiest course of action is to get yourself added to the MAINTAINERS file or to apply for an account at kernel.org.

Which devices are available under this program?

The program is limited to Nitrokey Start devices. There are several reasons why we picked this particular device among several available options.

First of all, many Linux kernel developers have a strong preference not just for open-source software, but for open hardware as well. Nitrokey is one of the few companies selling GnuPG-compatible smartcard devices that provide both, since Nitrokey Start is based on Gnuk cryptographic token firmware developed by Free Software Initiative of Japan. It is also one of the few commercially available devices that offer native support for ECC keys, which are both faster computationally than large RSA keys and generate smaller digital signatures. With our push to use more code signing of git objects themselves, both the open nature of the device and its support for fast modern cryptography were key points in our evaluation.

Additionally, Nitrokey devices (both Start and Pro models) are already used by open-source developers for cryptographic purposes and they are known to work well with Linux workstations.

What is the benefit of digital smartcard tokens?

With usual GnuPG operations, the private keys are stored in the home directory where they can be stolen by malware or exposed via other means, such as poorly secured backups. Furthermore, each time a GnuPG operation is performed, the keys are loaded into system memory and can be stolen from there using sufficiently advanced techniques (the likes of Meltdown and Spectre).

A digital smartcard token like Nitrokey Start contains a cryptographic chip that is capable of storing private keys and performing crypto operations directly on the token itself. Because the key contents never leave the device, the operating system of the computer into which the token is plugged in is not able to retrieve the private keys themselves, therefore significantly limiting the ways in which the keys can be leaked or stolen.

Questions or problems?

If you qualify for the program, but encounter any difficulties purchasing the device, please contact Nitrokey at shop@nitrokey.com.

For any questions about the program itself or with any other comments, please reach out to info@linuxfoundation.org.

This article originally appeared on kernel.org.

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