If an attacker obtains a private key that was created with no passphrase, he obviously gains access to everything protected with that key. How secure are private keys set up with a passphrase? If an attacker steals a passphrase-protected key, how hard it is to compromise the key? In other words, is a private key with a good passphrase secure even if accessed by an attacker?

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    Protecting a key with a key involves either a container or an encryption algorithm. What container or algorithm are you refering to?
    – this.josh
    Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 16:45
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    I'm thinking about generating an RSA keypair using ssh-keygen with default options and entering a passphrase when prompted. But I'd be curious about the answer for other common approaches as well.
    – jrdioko
    Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 16:58

4 Answers 4


With OpenSSL, OpenSSH and GPG/PGP the wrapping algorithm will be strong enough that you don't need to worry about it (and if you do need to worry about it then you have bigger problems, and this is the least of your worries).

Like any password or passphrase, it depends on the strength of the passphrase. A 40 character passphrase is as hard to brute force as a 256-bit key (since ASCII only uses 7 bits). The same rules for strong passwords apply here:

  • Random is better
  • Longer is stronger
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    OpenSSL uses 3DES for encryption of private key Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 23:03

Once an encrypted block of data is in the hands of an attacker, it is never secure forever - it's a question of how long and what means are available to crack it.

Here's things to consider:

  • strength of wrapping algorithm - I'm willing to believe bahamat about OpenSSL, OpenSSH and GPG/PGP - these are fairly well-vetted components.

  • size of key space - i.e. - size and complexity of password - the typical costs of brute force guessing apply. Of note, some forms of key storage limit the types of characters that can be used in a password - for example, JKS (the Java Key Store) eliminated quite a few special characters, reducing the potential size of the key space. Also be wary of systems that crop the key size to a certain number of characters.

  • cost of the attempt how computationally expensive is it to attempt to unwrap the key? That will slow down the brute force attempt.

  • what algorithm? - depends on how the secure file is stored - is it obvious what algorithm was used for encryption?

  • is there available cipher text to compare with? how will the attacker know he's successful - what is his test mechanism? One of the more powerful elements of capturing a key store is that the attacker may be able to test his attempts without further detection by the system storing the key.

  • how many resources are at the attacker's disposal? - generally threat analysis involves analyzing what the attacker's resources are. Does he have 1 computer? A bank of computers? And entire viral network of stolen CPU power at his disposal? Depends on whether you're talking about the 13 year old script kiddie next door or a rogue nation.

  • how long until the key is changed? & how long must the data stay protected? - if it takes the attacker longer to crack the password store than the usefulness of the data inside the store, then the store is considered secure enough

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    So for a RSA private key generated using ssh-keygen with default options and entering a long passphrase when prompted, how do these issues come into play? In other words, are we talking about a couple weeks on a home computer, or 5-10 years with a huge network of computers, or what?
    – jrdioko
    Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 20:25
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    The math is: (time to run unlock operation + time to test) * number of passwords attempted. The max is, of course, the entire password space, but the typical computation is (n+1)/2 for the average number of attempts. Not having tried SSH on any recent computer system, I'm not willing to give my own number - but this site says hours - help.ubuntu.com/community/SSH/OpenSSH/… - although I have no idea what their caliber is for a strong password. Commented Jul 12, 2011 at 14:13

According to Martin Kleppmann:

the [default OpenSSH] private key protection has two weaknesses:

  • The digest algorithm is hard-coded to be MD5, which means that without changing the format, it's not possible to upgrade to another hash function (e.g. SHA-1). This could be a problem if MD5 turns out not to be good enough.
  • The hash function is only applied once --- there is no stretching. This is a problem because MD5 and AES are both fast to compute, and thus a short passphrase is quite easy to break with brute force.

If your private SSH key ever gets into the wrong hands [and if it was passphrase-protected using the default OpenSSH settings and if] your passphrase is a dictionary word, it can probably be [decrypted] in a matter of seconds. ... But there is good news: you can upgrade to a more secure private key format, and everything continues to work!

He then goes on to explain how to use "PKCS#8" as per RFC 5208 to obtain a more securely encrypted private key:

$ mv test_rsa_key test_rsa_key.old
$ openssl pkcs8 -topk8 -v2 des3 \
    -in test_rsa_key.old -passin 'pass:super secret passphrase' \
    -out test_rsa_key -passout 'pass:super secret passphrase'
  • Thanks. Also looks like OpenSSH have recognized this as a problem and started to offer a solution with bcrypt (although it's not the default yet): lwn.net/Articles/590870
    – sourcejedi
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 10:33
  • Hey is this info still relevant? a friend had used something like openssl genrsa -des3 -out private.pem 2048 and set the passphrase to something short (with dictionary words involved), I'm wondering now if it's worth making a stronger password or following steps here. Commented May 1, 2017 at 22:09
  • @Dexter, if the passphrase was short and used dictionary words, then it may be worth replacing it with a stronger passphrase regardless. Consider using Diceware. As for replacing the whole key pair, depends on your threat model. Commented May 2, 2017 at 22:26
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    'no stretching' is wrong. OpenSSH (except new format -o optional as of 6.5 in 2014 as noted by @sourcejedi) uses OpenSSL's 'traditional' privatekey files which use EVP_BytesToKey which is essentially a tweak of PBKDF1 from PKCS5 with MD5 (fixed) and iteration count 2048 (fixed). It is OpenSSL's enc for encrypting data (not key) that awfully uses iteration count 1 (fixed). PKCS8 is indeed better than traditional files though, especially in OpenSSL 1.1.0 (2016) where iteration count is finally user-selectable. Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 3:24
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    OMG! Ignore my previous; I had believed that for years, but I just checked the code for something else and found OpenSSL traditional-aka-PEM encryption IS niter=1. (OpenSSL PKCS8 is indeed better, as is OpenSSH -o.) Sorry! Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 13:28

Encryption of OpenSSH private key is vulnerable?

Protecting a private key with a passphrase needs to be done carefully, as is usually the case in crypto matters. Generally the approach is to encrypt the private key with a symmetric algorithm using a key derived from the passphrase via a key derivation function. A classic example of a suitable key derivation function is PBKDF2 from RFC 2898 - PKCS #5: Password-Based Cryptography Specification Version 2.0.

According to Colin Percival's scrypt presentation, "OpenSSH uses MD5 as a key derivation function for passphrases on key files". From the context it seems that he's saying they don't use salts or iterations, which is scary given how fast brute-forcing is these days. There are a few different formats OpenSSH uses for storing private keys, so I'd like to know some more details and exactly what versions are affected, but that sounds like a far cry from PBKDF2 or the other iterated, salted techniques that have been around since 1978.

I see a reference claiming that PGP and GPG do use iteration/stretching techniques when protecting a private key stored in a file, but again don't know the details yet.

  • looks like openssh uses openssl EVP_BytesToKey, the key is a MD5 hash of the password and an 8 byte salt. The key and IV are taken from the result of the hash
    – this.josh
    Commented Jul 20, 2011 at 7:59
  • (@this.josh) for the record: OpenSSH (to date, except 'new format' -o since 6.5 in 2014) uses OpenSSL's 'traditional' format privatekeys with PEM-based encryption (as opposed to ASN.1-based encryption for PKCS8 format). 'Traditional' does use EVP_BytesToKey with MD5 but iteration count 2048 for the key, and uses an explicit IV in the PEM header which doubles as salt(!) It is OpenSSL enc that infamously uses EVP_BytesToKey with MD5 (SHA256 in 1.1.0) and iteration count one for both key and IV. Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 3:17
  • I was wrong about niter for traditional which is indeed 1. (MD5 and IV=salt were correct. And 'enc' does use niter=1 and derived IV.) Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 13:31

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