my package of the day – gpg for symmetric encryption

Though asymmetric encryption is state of the art today, there are still cases when you probably are in need of a simple symmetric encryption. In my case, I need an easy scriptable interface for encrypting files for backup as transparent as possible. While you can, of course, use asymmetric encryption for this, symmetric methods can save you a lot of time while still being secure enough.

So there are methods like stupid .zip encryption or a bunch of packages in the repositories like „bcrypt“ that provide you with their implementations. But there is a tool, you already know and maybe even use, but don’t think of when considering symmetric encryption: „gpg„. Actually gpg heavily relies on symmetric algorithms as you might know. The public/private key encryption is a combination of asymmetric and symmetric encryption as the latter is quite more cpu efficient. In our case, gpg will use the strong cast5 cipher by default.


So as gpg already knows about a bunch of symmetric encryption algorithms, why not use them? Let’s just see an example. You have a file named „secretfile1.txt“ and want to encrypt it:

$ gpg --symmetric secretfile1.txt

You will be prompted for a password. Afterwards you’ll have a file named secretfile1.txt.gpg. You are already done! Please note: The file size of the encrypted file might have decreased as gpg also compresses during encryption and outputs a binary. In my test case the file size went down from 700k to 100k. Nice.


In case you need to have an easy portable file that is even ready to be copy-pasted, you can ask gpg to create an ascii armor container:

$ gpg --armor --symmetric secretfile1.txt

The output file will be called „secretfile1.txt.asc“. Don’t bother to open it in a text editor of your choice. The beginning will look similar to this:

$ head secretfile1.txt.asc
Version: GnuPG v1.4.6 (GNU/Linux)


(In this case I used ‚head“ for displaying the first ten lines. Head is similar to tail, which you might already know.) Though the ascii file is larger than the binary .gpg file it is still much smaller than the original text file (about 200k in the above case). When tampering with binary files like already compressed tarballs the file size of the encrypted file might slightly increase. In my test, the size grew from a 478kB file to a 479kB file when using binary mode. In ascii armor mode the size nearly hit the 650kb mark, which is still pretty acceptable.


Decrypting is as easy. Just call „gpg –decrypt“, for instance:

$ gpg --decrypt secretfile1.txt.gpg
# or
$ gpg --decrypt secretfile1.txt.asc

gpg knows by itself, if it is given an ascii armored or binary file. But nevertheless the output will be written to standard output, so the following line might be much more helpful for you:

$ gpg --output secretfile1.txt --decrypt secretfile1.txt.gpg

Please note, that you need to stick to the order first –output, then –decrypt. Of course you can also use a redirector („>“).


So, for the sake of it: The real interesting thing is that you can use gpg symmetric encryption in a chain of programs, controlled by pipes. This enables you to encrypt/decrypt on the fly with shell scripts helping you to write strong backup scripts. Gpg already detects, if your are using it in a pipe. So let’s try it out:

$ tar c directory | gpg --symmetric --passphrase secretmantra \
| ssh hostname "cat > backup.tar.gpg"

We just made a tarbal, encrypted it and sent it over ssh without creating temporary files. Nice, isn’t it? To be honest, piping over ssh is not a big deal anymore. But piping to ftp? Check this:

$  tar c directory | gpg --symmetric --passphrase SECRETMANTRA \
| curl --netrc-optional --silent --show-error --upload-file - \
--ftp-create-dirs ftp://USER:PASSWORD@SECRETHOST/SECRETFILE.tar.gpg

With the mighty curl we just piped from tar over gpg directly to a file on a ftp server without any temporary files. You might get a clue of the power of this chain. Now you can start using a dumb ftp server as encrypted backup device now completely transparently.

That’s all for now. If you like encryption, you should also check symmetric encryption and the possibilities of enhancing daily business scripts security by adding some strong crypto to it. Of course you can complain about the security of the password, the possible visibility via „ps aux“, but you should be able to reduce risks by putting some brain in it. In the meantime check „bashup„, the bash backup script, which uses methods described here to provide you with a powerful and scriptable backup library written in Bash with minimum depencies. And yes, gpg will be added soon.

11 Gedanken zu “my package of the day – gpg for symmetric encryption

  1. Interesting – i didnt know you could use gpg with symmetric encryption. I use ‚aespipe‘ for encrypted backups if zip with password isnt god enough.

  2. Pingback: Recent Links Tagged With "bcrypt" - JabberTags

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