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Cover image for Oath: Don't Loose Your Keys!
Alex de Sousa
Alex de Sousa

Posted on • Originally published at

Oath: Don't Loose Your Keys!

Recently, I needed to reset my phone. I spent some time backing up my pictures and documents. Everything was going great. But then, I hit a roadblock.

The problem

One-time passwords have become very handy for logging into several sites from Twitter to Coinbase. This passwords are 6 digit tokens generated using the current time and a private key. I was using Google Authenticator for getting my one-time passwords. Sadly, this app does not provide a way to backup the private keys.

The damage was done. I couldn't retrieve the private keys, so I needed to regenerate all of them in every site individually. I thought about my future self dealing with the same issue and I knew I needed a sustainable solution.

Let's change the lightbulb

The research

I wanted a one-time password solution that:

  • Didn't rely on my phone or any app.
  • Could also be used in my computer.
  • Was offline (no private keys stored in the cloud).

That's when I discovered oathtool: a command line tool for generating 6 digit tokens given a private key.

I installed it using sudo apt install oathtool

Generating a 6 digit token with oathtool is as easy as doing the following:

$ oathtool -b --totp 'MyPrivateKey'

Discovering this tool was a good start, but I needed a good way of dealing with the private keys. Then I stumbled upon this article. The author created two scripts:

  • One for encrypting the private key into a file using gpg2.
  • One for decrypting the private key and retrieving the 6 digit token using oathtool.

Additionally, the 6 digit token was automatically copied to the clipboard using xclip.

I installed both tools by running sudo apt install gnupg2 xclip

I loved the solution! Though it had some flaws like storing temporarily an unencrypted file with the private key, it was a great idea :)

Great idea

The plugin

I wrote Oath ZSH plugin by gathering the best ideas from that article. I ended up with the following commands:

  • Adding a private key:
   $ oath add
   Private key:
   [SUCCESS]  Key created for
  • Showing a 6 digit token (it'll ask for the gpg password):
   $ oath
   [SUCCESS]  Code copied to clipboard
  • Deleting a private key (it'll ask for the gpg password):
   $ oath delete
   [WARN]     Deleting /home/user/.oath/
   [WARN]     Deleting /home/user/.oath/
   [SUCCESS]  Key deleted for

The same private keys I added to oath, I also added them to my phone's Google Authenticator app. That way both, my computer and phone, generate the same 6 digit token at a given time.

The only difference is that now I can backup everything. I just need to copy the following folders:

  • $HOME/.gnupg/: GPG folder with all the gpg keys.
  • $HOME/.oath/: Oath folder where all the private keys are stored.

For more info, visit Oath Github repository.



Though this solution might not be for everyone, it solves the problem I had. Now I can reset my phone at any time and not worrying about my private keys, because they're safely backed up.

The keys

Happy hacking!

Cover image by Chunlea Ju

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