Set up piv-agent to work with your hardware.


Default setup

This procedure is only required once per hardware security device. Performing it a second time will reset the keys on the PIV applet of the device. It will not make any changes to applets providing other functionality the device may have, such as WebAuthn.

By default, piv-agent uses six slots on your hardware security device to set up three signing keys, and three decrypting key. Each of the signing and decrypting keys have different touch policies: never required, cached (for 15 seconds), and always.

The three signing keys are used for both SSH and GPG signing. The decrypting keys are used for GPG decryption. Having a range of touch policies available facilitates practical use of the hardware security device.

The default slot usage by piv-agent is detailed in the table below, with reference to the Yubikey certificate slot usage description. It is highly recommended to use these setup defaults as this has had the most usability testing.

Slot IDNominal purposepiv-agent usageTouch policy
0x9aPIV AuthenticationSigningCached
0x9cDigital SignatureSigningAlways
0x9eCard AuthenticationSigningNever
0x9dKey ManagementDecryptingCached
0x82Key Management (retired)DecryptingAlways
0x83Key Management (retired)DecryptingNever

Example setup workflow

# find the name of the hardware security devices (cards)
piv-agent list

# generate new keys (PIN will be requested via interactive prompt)
piv-agent setup --card='Yubico YubiKey FIDO+CCID 01 00'

# view newly generated keys (SSH only by default)
piv-agent list

Single slot setup

It is possible to set up a single PIV slot on your hardware device without resetting the PIV applet entirely. This means that you can target a single slot to set up a key if the slot has not been set up yet, or reset a key if the slot already contains one. Other PIV slots will not be affected, and will retain their existing keys.

For example this command will reset just the decrypting key with touch policy never on your Yubikey:

piv-agent setup-slots --card="Yubico YubiKey FIDO+CCID 01 00" --pin=123456 --decrypting-keys=never --reset-slots

See the interactive help for more usage details:

piv-agent setup-slots --help


List keys

List your hardware SSH keys:

piv-agent list

Add the public SSH key with the touch policy you want from the list, to any SSH service.


Export the SSH_AUTH_SOCK variable in your shell.

export SSH_AUTH_SOCK=$XDG_RUNTIME_DIR/piv-agent/ssh.socket

Prefer keys on the hardware security device

If you don’t already have one, it’s a good idea to generate an ed25519 keyfile and add that to all SSH services too for redundancy. piv-agent will automatically load and use ~/.ssh/id_ed25519 as a fallback.

By default, ssh will offer keyfiles it finds on disk before those from the agent. This is a problem because piv-agent is designed to offer keys from the hardware token first, and only fall back to local keyfiles if token keys are refused. To get ssh to ignore local keyfiles and only talk to piv-agent, add this line to your ssh_config, for all hosts:

IdentityFile /dev/null

List keys using ssh-add

Confirm that ssh-add can talk to piv-agent by listing the keys available.

ssh-add -L

You should see the Yubikey ssh keys listed.


Export fallback cryptographic keys

Private GPG keys to be used by piv-agent must be exported to the directory ~/.gnupg/piv-agent.secring/.

# example
# set umask for user-only permissions
umask 77
mkdir -p ~/.gnupg/piv-agent.secring
gpg --export-secret-key 0xB346A434C7652C02 > ~/.gnupg/piv-agent.secring/

Disable gpg-agent

It is not possible to set a custom path for the gpg-agent socket in a similar manner to ssh-agent. Instead gpg-agent always uses a hard-coded path for its socket. In order for piv-agent to work with gpg, it sets up a socket in this same default location. To avoid conflict over this path, gpg-agent should be disabled.

This is how you can disable gpg-agent on Debian/Ubuntu:

  • Add no-autostart to ~/.gnupg/gpg.conf.
  • systemctl --user disable --now gpg-agent.socket gpg-agent.service; pkill gpg-agent

Other platforms may have slightly different instructions - PRs welcome.

Import public cryptographic keys from the security hardware

Before any private GPG keys on the hardware dvice can be used, gpg requires their public keys to be imported. This structure of a GPG public key contains a User ID packet, which must be signed by the associated private key.

The piv-agent list command can synthesize a public key for the private key stored on the security hardware device. Listing a GPG key via piv-agent list --key-formats=gpg will require a touch to perform signing on the keys associated with those slots (due to the User ID packet). You should provide a name and email which will be embedded in the synthesized public key (see piv-agent --help list).

# example
piv-agent list --key-formats=ssh,gpg --pgp-name='Art Vandelay' --pgp-email=''

Paste the public key(s) you would like to use into a key.asc file, and run gpg --import key.asc.

GPG Advanced

If you have followed the setup instructions to this point you should have a functional gpg-agent backed by a PIV hardware device. The following instructions allow deeper integration of the hardware with existing GPG keys and workflows.

Add cryptographic key stored in hardware as a GPG signing subkey

Adding a piv-agent OpenPGP key as a signing subkey of an existing OpenPGP key is a convenient way to integrate a hardware security device with your existing gpg workflow. This allows you to do things like sign git commits using your Yubikey, while keeping the same OpenPGP key ID. Adding a subkey requires cross-signing between the master key and sub key, so you need to export the master secret key of your existing OpenPGP key as described above to make it available to piv-agent.

gpg will choose the newest available subkey to perform an action. So it will automatically prefer a newly added piv-agent subkey over any existing keyfile subkeys, but fall back to keyfiles if e.g. the Yubikey is not plugged in.

See the GPG Walkthrough for an example of this procedure.

Last modified August 19, 2022: chore: document ssh-add -L in setup (936eb81)