An earlier article showed that private key storage is an important problem to solve in any cryptographic system and established keycards as a good way to store private key material offline. But which keycard should we use? This article examines the form factor, openness, and performance of four keycards to try to help readers choose the one that will fit their needs.

I have personally been using a YubiKey NEO, since a 2015 announcement on GitHub promoting two-factor authentication. I was also able to hook up my SSH authentication key into the YubiKey's 2048 bit RSA slot. It seemed natural to move the other subkeys onto the keycard, provided that performance was sufficient. The mail client that I use, (Notmuch), blocks when decrypting messages, which could be a serious problems on large email threads from encrypted mailing lists.

So I built a test harness and got access to some more keycards: I bought a FST-01 from its creator, Yutaka Niibe, at the last DebConf and Nitrokey donated a Nitrokey Pro. I also bought a YubiKey 4 when I got the NEO. There are of course other keycards out there, but those are the ones I could get my hands on. You'll notice none of those keycards have a physical keypad to enter passwords, so they are all vulnerable to keyloggers that could extract the key's PIN. Keep in mind, however, that even with the PIN, an attacker could only ask the keycard to decrypt or sign material but not extract the key that is protected by the card's firmware.

Form factor

The Nitrokey Pro, YubiKey NEO
(worn out), YubiKey 4, and FST-01

The four keycards have similar form factors: they all connect to a standard USB port, although both YubiKey keycards have a capacitive button by which the user triggers two-factor authentication and the YubiKey 4 can also require a button press to confirm private key use. The YubiKeys feel sturdier than the other two. The NEO has withstood two years of punishment in my pockets along with the rest of my "real" keyring and there is only minimal wear on the keycard in the picture. It's also thinner so it fits well on the keyring.

The FST-01 stands out from the other two with its minimal design. Out of the box, the FST-01 comes without a case, so the circuitry is exposed. This is deliberate: one of its goals is to be as transparent as possible, both in terms of software and hardware design and you definitely get that feeling at the physical level. Unfortunately, that does mean it feels more brittle than other models: I wouldn't carry it in my pocket all the time, although there is a case that may protect the key a little better, but it does not provide an easy way to hook it into a keyring. In the group picture above, the FST-01 is the pink plastic thing, which is a rubbery casing I received along with the device when I got it.

Notice how the USB connectors of the YubiKeys differ from the other two: while the FST-01 and the Nitrokey have standard USB connectors, the YubiKey has only a "half-connector", which is what makes it thinner than the other two. The "Nano" form factor takes this even further and almost disappears in the USB port. Unfortunately, this arrangement means the YubiKey NEO often comes loose and falls out of the USB port, especially when connected to a laptop. On my workstation, however, it usually stays put even with my whole keyring hanging off of it. I suspect this adds more strain to the host's USB port but that's a tradeoff I've lived with without any noticeable wear so far. Finally, the NEO has this peculiar feature of supporting NFC for certain operations, as LWN previously covered, but I haven't used that feature yet.

The Nitrokey Pro looks like a normal USB key, in contrast with the other two devices. It does feel a little brittle when compared with the YubiKey, although only time will tell how much of a beating it can take. It has a small ring in the case so it is possible to carry it directly on your keyring, but I would be worried the cap would come off eventually. Nitrokey devices are also two times thicker than the Yubico models which makes them less convenient to carry around on keyrings.

Open and closed designs

The FST-01 is as open as hardware comes, down to the PCB design available as KiCad files in this Git repository. The software running on the card is the Gnuk firmware that implements the OpenPGP card protocol, but you can also get it with firmware implementing a true random number generator (TRNG) called NeuG (pronounced "noisy"); the device is programmable through a standard Serial Wire Debug (SWD) port. The Nitrokey Start model also runs the Gnuk firmware. However, the Nitrokey website announces only ECC and RSA 2048-bit support for the Start, while the FST-01 also supports RSA-4096. Nitrokey's founder Jan Suhr, in a private email, explained that this is because "Gnuk doesn't support RSA-3072 or larger at a reasonable speed". Its devices (the Pro, Start, and HSM models) use a similar chip to the FST-01: the STM32F103 microcontroller.

Nitrokey Pro with STM32F103TBU6 MCU

Nitrokey also publishes its hardware designs, on GitHub, which shows the Pro is basically a fork of the FST-01, according to the ChangeLog. I opened the case to confirm it was using the STM MCU, something I should warn you against; I broke one of the pins holding it together when opening it so now it's even more fragile. But at least, I was able to confirm it was built using the STM32F103TBU6 MCU, like the FST-01.

Nitrokey back side

But this is where the comparison ends: on the back side, we find a SIM card reader that holds the OpenPGP card that, in turn, holds the private key material and does the cryptographic operations. So, in effect, the Nitrokey Pro is really a evolution of the original OpenPGP card readers. Nitrokey confirmed the OpenPGP card featured in the Pro is the same as the one shipped by the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE): the BasicCard built by ZeitControl. Those cards, however, are covered by NDAs and the firmware is only partially open source.

This makes the Nitrokey Pro less open than the FST-01, but that's an inevitable tradeoff when choosing a design based on the OpenPGP cards, which Suhr described to me as "pretty proprietary". There are other keycards out there, however, for example the SLJ52GDL150-150k smartcard suggested by Debian developer Yves-Alexis Perez, which he prefers as it is certified by French and German authorities. In that blog post, he also said he was experimenting with the GPL-licensed OpenPGP applet implemented by the French ANSSI.

But the YubiKey devices are even further away in the closed-design direction. Both the hardware designs and firmware are proprietary. The YubiKey NEO, for example, cannot be upgraded at all, even though it is based on an open firmware. According to Yubico's FAQ, this is due to "best security practices": "There is a 'no upgrade' policy for our devices since nothing, including malware, can write to the firmware."

I find this decision questionable in a context where security updates are often more important than trying to design a bulletproof design, which may simply be impossible. And the YubiKey NEO did suffer from critical security issue that allowed attackers to bypass the PIN protection on the card, which raises the question of the actual protection of the private key material on those cards. According to Niibe, "some OpenPGP cards store the private key unencrypted. It is a common attitude for many smartcard implementations", which was confirmed by Suhr: "the private key is protected by hardware mechanisms which prevent its extraction and misuse". He is referring to the use of tamper resistance.

After that security issue, there was no other option for YubiKey NEO users than to get a new keycard (for free, thankfully) from Yubico, which also meant discarding the private key material on the key. For OpenPGP keys, this may mean having to bootstrap the web of trust from scratch if the keycard was responsible for the main certification key.

But at least the NEO is running free software based on the OpenPGP card applet and the source is still available on GitHub. The YubiKey 4, on the other hand, is now closed source, which was controversial when the new model was announced last year. It led the main Linux Foundation system administrator, Konstantin Ryabitsev, to withdraw his endorsement of Yubico products. In response, Yubico argued that this approach was essential to the security of its devices, which are now based on "a secure chip, which has built-in countermeasures to mitigate a long list of attacks". In particular, it claims that:

A commercial-grade AVR or ARM controller is unfit to be used in a security product. In most cases, these controllers are easy to attack, from breaking in via a debug/JTAG/TAP port to probing memory contents. Various forms of fault injection and side-channel analysis are possible, sometimes allowing for a complete key recovery in a shockingly short period of time.

While I understand those concerns, they eventually come down to the trust you have in an organization. Not only do we have to trust Yubico, but also hardware manufacturers and designs they have chosen. Every step in the hidden supply chain is then trusted to make correct technical decisions and not introduce any backdoors.

History, unfortunately, is not on Yubico's side: Snowden revealed the example of RSA security accepting what renowned cryptographer Bruce Schneier described as a "bribe" from the NSA to weaken its ECC implementation, by using the presumably backdoored Dual_EC_DRBG algorithm. What makes Yubico or its suppliers so different from RSA Security? Remember that RSA Security used to be an adamant opponent to the degradation of encryption standards, campaigning against the Clipper chip in the first crypto wars.

Even if we trust the Yubico supply chain, how can we trust a closed design using what basically amounts to security through obscurity? Publicly auditable designs are an important tradition in cryptography, and that principle shouldn't stop when software is frozen into silicon.

In fact, a critical vulnerability called ROCA disclosed recently affects closed "smartcards" like the YubiKey 4 and allows full private key recovery from the public key if the key was generated on a vulnerable keycard. When speaking with Ars Technica, the researchers outlined the importance of open designs and questioned the reliability of certification:

Our work highlights the dangers of keeping the design secret and the implementation closed-source, even if both are thoroughly analyzed and certified by experts. The lack of public information causes a delay in the discovery of flaws (and hinders the process of checking for them), thereby increasing the number of already deployed and affected devices at the time of detection.

This issue with open hardware designs seems to be recurring topic of conversation on the Gnuk mailing list. For example, there was a discussion in September 2017 regarding possible hardware vulnerabilities in the STM MCU that would allow extraction of encrypted key material from the key. Niibe referred to a talk presented at the WOOT 17 workshop, where Johannes Obermaier and Stefan Tatschner, from the Fraunhofer Institute, demonstrated attacks against the STMF0 family MCUs. It is still unclear if those attacks also apply to the older STMF1 design used in the FST-01, however. Furthermore, extracted private key material is still protected by user passphrase, but the Gnuk uses a weak key derivation function, so brute-forcing attacks may be possible. Fortunately, there is work in progress to make GnuPG hash the passphrase before sending it to the keycard, which should make such attacks harder if not completely pointless.

When asked about the Yubico claims in a private email, Niibe did recognize that "it is true that there are more weak points in general purpose implementations than special implementations". During the last DebConf in Montreal, Niibe explained:

If you don't trust me, you should not buy from me. Source code availability is only a single factor: someone can maliciously replace the firmware to enable advanced attacks.

Niibe recommends to "build the firmware yourself", also saying the design of the FST-01 uses normal hardware that "everyone can replicate". Those advantages are hard to deny for a cryptographic system: using more generic components makes it harder for hostile parties to mount targeted attacks.

A counter-argument here is that it can be difficult for a regular user to audit such designs, let alone physically build the device from scratch but, in a mailing list discussion, Debian developer Ian Jackson explained that:

You don't need to be able to validate it personally. The thing spooks most hate is discovery. Backdooring supposedly-free hardware is harder (more costly) because it comes with greater risk of discovery.

To put it concretely: if they backdoor all of them, someone (not necessarily you) might notice. (Backdooring only yours involves messing with the shipping arrangements and so on, and supposes that you specifically are of interest.)

Since that, as far as we know, the STM microcontrollers are not backdoored, I would tend to favor those devices instead of proprietary ones, as such a backdoor would be more easily detectable than in a closed design. Even though physical attacks may be possible against those microcontrollers, in the end, if an attacker has physical access to a keycard, I consider the key compromised, even if it has the best chip on the market. In our email exchange, Niibe argued that "when a token is lost, it is better to revoke keys, even if the token is considered secure enough". So like any other device, physical compromise of tokens may mean compromise of the key and should trigger key-revocation procedures.

Algorithms and performance

To establish reliable performance results, I wrote a benchmark program naively called crypto-bench that could produce comparable results between the different keys. The program takes each algorithm/keycard combination and runs 1000 decryptions of a 16-byte file (one AES-128 block) using GnuPG, after priming it to get the password cached. I assume the overhead of GnuPG calls to be negligible, as it should be the same across all tokens, so comparisons are possible. AES encryption is constant across all tests as it is always performed on the host and fast enough to be irrelevant in the tests.

I used the following:

I ran crypto-bench for each keycard, which resulted in the following:

Algorithm Device Mean time (s)
ECDH-Curve25519 CPU 0.036
FST-01 0.135
RSA-2048 CPU 0.016
YubiKey-4 0.162
Nitrokey-Pro 0.610
YubiKey-NEO 0.736
FST-01 1.265
RSA-4096 CPU 0.043
YubiKey-4 0.875
Nitrokey-Pro 3.150
FST-01 8.218

Decryption graph

There we see the performance of the four keycards I tested, compared with the same operations done without a keycard: the "CPU" device. That provides the baseline time of GnuPG decrypting the file. The first obvious observation is that using a keycard is slower: in the best scenario (FST-01 + ECC) we see a four-fold slowdown, but in the worst case (also FST-01, but RSA-4096), we see a catastrophic 200-fold slowdown. When I presented the results on the Gnuk mailing list, GnuPG developer Werner Koch confirmed those "numbers are as expected":

With a crypto chip RSA is much faster. By design the Gnuk can't be as fast - it is just a simple MCU. However, using Curve25519 Gnuk is really fast.

And yes, the FST-01 is really fast at doing ECC, but it's also the only keycard that handles ECC in my tests; the Nitrokey Start and Nitrokey HSM should support it as well, but I haven't been able to test those devices. Also note that the YubiKey NEO doesn't support RSA-4096 at all, so we can only compare RSA-2048 across keycards. We should note, however, that ECC is slower than RSA on the CPU, which suggests the Gnuk ECC implementation used by the FST-01 is exceptionally fast.

In discussions about improving the performance of the FST-01, Niibe estimated the user tolerance threshold to be "2 seconds decryption time". In a new design using the STM32L432 microcontroller, Aurelien Jarno was able to bring the numbers for RSA-2048 decryption from 1.27s down to 0.65s, and for RSA-4096, from 8.22s down to 3.87s seconds. RSA-4096 is still beyond the two-second threshold, but at least it brings the FST-01 close to the YubiKey NEO and Nitrokey Pro performance levels.

We should also underline the superior performance of the YubiKey 4: whatever that thing is doing, it's doing it faster than anyone else. It does RSA-4096 faster than the FST-01 does RSA-2048, and almost as fast as the Nitrokey Pro does RSA-2048. We should also note that the Nitrokey Pro also fails to cross the two-second threshold for RSA-4096 decryption.

For me, the FST-01's stellar performance with ECC outshines the other devices. Maybe it says more about the efficiency of the algorithm than the FST-01 or Gnuk's design, but it's definitely an interesting avenue for people who want to deploy those modern algorithms. So, in terms of performance, it is clear that both the YubiKey 4 and the FST-01 take the prize in their own areas (RSA and ECC, respectively).


In the above presentation, I have evaluated four cryptographic keycards for use with various OpenPGP operations. What the results show is that the only efficient way of storing a 4096-bit encryption key on a keycard would be to use the YubiKey 4. Unfortunately, I do not feel we should put our trust in such closed designs so I would argue you should either stick with 2048-bit encryption subkeys or keep the keys on disk. Considering that losing such a key would be catastrophic, this might be a good approach anyway. You should also consider switching to ECC encryption: even though it may not be supported everywhere, GnuPG supports having multiple encryption subkeys on a keyring: if one algorithm is unsupported (e.g. GnuPG 1.4 doesn't support ECC), it will fall back to a supported algorithm (e.g. RSA). Do not forget your previously encrypted material doesn't magically re-encrypt itself using your new encryption subkey, however.

For authentication and signing keys, speed is not such an issue, so I would warmly recommend either the Nitrokey Pro or Start, or the FST-01, depending on whether you want to start experimenting with ECC algorithms. Availability also seems to be an issue for the FST-01. While you can generally get the device when you meet Niibe in person for a few bucks (I bought mine for around \$30 Canadian), the Seeed online shop says the device is out of stock at the time of this writing, even though Jonathan McDowell said that may be inaccurate in a debian-project discussion. Nevertheless, this issue may make the Nitrokey devices more attractive. When deciding on using the Pro or Start, Suhr offered the following advice:

In practice smart card security has been proven to work well (at least if you use a decent smart card). Therefore the Nitrokey Pro should be used for high security cases. If you don't trust the smart card or if Nitrokey Start is just sufficient for you, you can choose that one. This is why we offer both models.

So far, I have created a signing subkey and moved that and my authentication key to the YubiKey NEO, because it's a device I physically trust to keep itself together in my pockets and I was already using it. It has served me well so far, especially with its extra features like U2F and HOTP support, which I use frequently. Those features are also available on the Nitrokey Pro, so that may be an alternative if I lose the YubiKey. I will probably move my main certification key to the FST-01 and a LUKS-encrypted USB disk, to keep that certification key offline but backed up on two different devices. As for the encryption key, I'll wait for keycard performance to improve, or simply switch my whole keyring to ECC and use the FST-01 or Nitrokey Start for that purpose.

[The author would like to thank Nitrokey for providing hardware for testing.]

This article first appeared in the Linux Weekly News.

Created . Edited .