A practical guide to get started with Pass
In my recent endeavour to upgrade my digital security, I started using Pass, the command-line based password manager for my online accounts. While there were a few online guides that I could follow to get started with Pass, I did feel a need of a comprehensive guide for new users of Pass. In my attempt to fill the gap, I will try to touch upon various aspects that one needs to be mindful of to use Pass in the most secure and optimal way.
Table of Contents
- Why a (dedicated) password manager
- Why Pass
- GPG key for Pass
- Initializing Pass
- Storing and retrieving a password in Pass
- Integrating Pass with Git
- A common problem and the solution
Why a (dedicated) password manager
The days are over when you remembered the passwords for all your online accounts. In this age, you need to use an online account virtually for every other service. And even though many services are offering multi-factor authentication (MFA) options today for securely logging into your accounts, the importance of a strong password is still as high as ever. And the best security practices say that a password is the strongest when it is as random as possible, something that an average human mind can neither create nor remember easily. And this is where the importance of a password manager lies. It’s far easier to rather lock all your keys behind a master lock and have one very secure key than to carry around separate unique keys with you for all the locks.
But when in today’s age, effectively all major browsers provide password storage and sync features, it may not sound very practical to have a separate piece of software for storing your passwords. There can be arguments on both sides but it’s generally a more secure practice to not give away too many responsibilities to one software and trust a browser for what it does best - browse the internet.
Pass is a command-line password manager. It may not sound very attractive compared to various cloud-based alternatives that are available today especially if you are not a command-line person but the main power of Pass comes from it’s simplicity and transparency. At it’s core, Pass does not do much by itself and makes use of other Unix software that are already available and are industry standards. Namely it uses gpg for encryption of the stored passwords and git for version control and cloud syncing.
Another inspiration to use Pass could be that if you do not feel too inclined to blindly trust the cloud-based and closed-source password managers available in the market.
In the next sections, I will discuss about different aspects of installing and using Pass.
GPG key for Pass
Before we can use Pass, the very first step is to create a GPG key that will be used by Pass. If you already have an existing one and you wish to reuse it, you can skip this step. If you are using a Linux or Mac system, chances are that GPG is already installed in your system. Try entering this command which will print the installed version of GPG to make sure that it’s already installed.
If not, use your package manager to install it.
Coming up with a good pass phrase
Before you create your GPG key, it’s extremely important to come up with a good pass phrase that you can use with your key. And the characteristics of a good pass phrase are that it should as random as possible and yet it should be easy to remember. The Diceware method is an excellent way to generate a truly random pass phrase.
You can use the diceware command-line tool for this. It’s available in the Debian package repository. You can also install it using pip. To generate a random 6-words long pass phrase with space as the delimiter, use the following command:
diceware -d ' '
Creating the GPG key
Creating a GPG key is easy, just use the following command to interactively create one:
- Go with the default crypto algorithm.
- Use the maximum allowed length: 4096.
- It’s not recommended to have keys that never expire. 2y should be a reasonable expiry period.
- Enter your name and email address.
- You can use the comment field to put a unique value for uniquely identifying keys sharing the same email address.
- Enter the pass phrase from the above section when prompted.
This ought to create a private and public key pair for you.
Taking back up of the GPG key
It’s awfully crucial to take backup of the GPG private key that you just created. It will help you to restore access to your passwords from backups and also to share the passwords between computers.
Use the following command to list all your GPG keys:
The above image highlights the ID part of a GPG key.
Copy the ID of the key that you created from your output list.
Next use the following command to export it to a file.
Use the actual path of where the private key will be exported to in the below
command and replace the
<key ID> with the ID copied from the above step.
gpg --export-secret-keys --armor --output </path/to/secret-key-backup.asc> <key ID>
The above exported private key is already secure with the pass phrase that you
But to put an additional layer of security around it, let’s compress and encrypt
the exported keys.
Also remove the
secret-key-backup.asc file afterwards.
tar -cvJf - </path/to/secret-key-backup.asc>|gpg --symmetric --output keys.tar.xz.gpg rm </path/to/secret-key-backup.asc>
Enter a new password for the encryption when prompted.
This password will be required again when you will decrypt the content of the
archive later, so make sure that you can remember it again when needed.
You can now safely store the
keys.tar.xz.gpg file in a CD or in your back up
You need to initialize Pass before you can start using it. It’s a very easy step to initialize Pass.
pass init <key ID>
<key ID> with the actual GPG key ID.
And that’s it.
Storing and retrieving a password in Pass
Pass encrypts your passwords with the GPG key and keeps the encrypted files
organizes in a directory structure under the default root directory
To insert a new password for the website
example.com into Pass, use the
pass insert example.com
Enter the password for
example.com when prompted.
This will create an encrypted file named
~/.password-store and store the password in it.
If you have multiple accounts for a website, you may use the following
pass insert example.com/username1
This will an encrypted file named
~/.password-store/example.com to store the password.
To print a password to the terminal, use the following:
You will need to enter your GPG pass phrase.
Alternatively to copy the password securely in your clipboard, use the
flag without printing it on the terminal.
pass -c example.com
This command also automatically clears the copied password from the clipboard after 45 seconds to prevent you from inadvertently pasting it in some other place.
You can also auto-generate a random password with the following command:
pass generate example.com
Integrating Pass with Git
Pass also provides integration with Git - the revision control system. This in turn can be used to back up the stored passwords to an online remote repository like GitHub or GitLab. This is also useful if you want to share your passwords between multiple computers.
In this example, I will be using GitHub. But any other online version control system that uses Git can also be utilized instead of GitHub. Follow this guide to create a private GitHub repository.
Now, to initialize the Pass root directory as a git repository, run the following:
pass git init
And to add the remote Git repository URL, use the following:
pass git remote add origin email@example.com:<username>/<repository-name>.git
Replace your username and the newly created repository name in the above command.
generate operations, Pass will automatically
make a new commit to your local Git repository.
You can use the following commands to push or pull your changes to and from the
pass git push pass git pull
A common problem and the solution
Pass has clients for many platforms including Firefox and Chrome. But I prefer using it without the clients which means copying the passwords to the clipboard from Pass and then pasting them directly in the browser. The problem with this approach is that some websites block users from copying or pasting anything on them for some unfounded security reasons. Follow this guide for a workaround to this problems on Firefox and Chrome.
I understand that Pass may not be to everyone’s taste and it’s completely fine to use another, a more user friendly password manager as long as you are using one. But to the ones who want to use it and are looking for a way to get started, I hope you find this article useful.