Thoughts on PyPI, PGP and Sigstore

PGP: Grumbles & Footguns

A recent grumble about PGP signatures on PyPI has quickly led to PyPI dropping support for PGP. I'm a little torn on what to make of this.

The PGP ecosystem is difficult to make the best use of and suffers from a conceptual design which is stuck in the 90's. This isn't helped by the most commonly used tool, gnupg, being rather obtuse. Improvements have definitely been made in recent years though - for example key discoverability and questions of how much trust to give to unknown keys have been made easier by the introduction of which verifies ownership of email addresses before indexing PGP keys. And the Sequoia-PGP library and command line tools bring memory safety (Rust FTW), a cleaner API and a simpler command line interface to users. But are these infrastructure and tooling improvements enough?

It's just fundamentally non-trivial to make use of PGP to securely sign software releases, backup archive and other such artifacts (we'll be ignoring the use of PGP to sign & encrypt email here as this is another can of worms which could take up a full blog post). For the Linux kernel, there is an extensive Kernel Maintainer PGP guide based on the Linux Foundation's Protecting code integrity with PGP IT policy document. There's a lot to take in here, and footguns abound.


I've seen many people point at Minisign as the solution. It's certainly easier to use! And somewhat harder to misuse since it only supports a single known-good signing algorithm instead of trying to support everything under the sun. But it lacks key features which I think are critical to the intended use-case:

  • key expiry & revocation features are needed to limit the damage which may occur if key material is leaked to unauthorised users.
  • support for crypto smart cards & Hardware Security Modules (HSMs) is needed to reduce the likelihood of leaking key material in the first place.
  • integration with git is needed to be able to sign commits during development and to sign tags at release time.


A better solution would be sigstore, which simplifies the process of both signing and verifying packages without compromising on the security of key material. It does this by using a centralized certificate authority which issues ephemeral signing keys each time you want to make a signature. The signer's problem then becomes one of authentication instead of one of key management, and this problem is delegated to OpenID Connect (OIDC) identity providers. Assuming you already have an account with an OIDC provider supported by sigstore (Google, GitHub, etc), you simply authenticate with your chosen ID provider to allow you to create a sigstore signature tied to your identity. And sigstore also provides support for signing git commits, which Minisign lacks.

The key assumption here is that you're willing to delegate trust to both the sigstore root-of-trust and the limited number of existing OIDC providers. The first of those two seems somewhat reasonable on first look, and it helps that their root signing tools are open. The second is a larger assumption in my view - do we want to further centralise the security of the open source ecosystem [1] around the platform oligopoly of Microsoft, Google and co? I don't think we do. Instead, if OIDC is going to be used in this way, we need to see a variety of other OIDC hosts who can act as privacy-preserving, open and non-commercial identity providers for the community. We will also need to see well-supported options for both individuals and projects to self-host an OIDC identity provider.

It's also worth reviewing What Sigstore Doesn't Guarantee. The main issue here to me is that there is no way to mitigate compromise of an OIDC identity or provider.

Sigstore also integrates with Rekor to provide "an immutable tamper resistant ledger" (quoting from the readme) of signatures. This is an excellent feature, but the benefit isn't exclusive to sigstore as other signature types (such as Minisign signatures) can be uploaded to the Rekor transparency log.

On balance, I'm feeling positive about sigstore. More work is definitely needed, both in integration with hosts like PyPI & GitHub and with support for a more decentralised identity model. But the current state is a very good start. I'm going to try it out for my next release of mirrorshades.

Coming back to Python

To loop back round to PyPI, my complaint is that the (somewhat poor and atrophied) support for PGP is being dropped before a replacement has been integrated. If sigstore does prove to be the way forward then that's great, but I would have preferred PyPI to keep the existing PGP support as-is until sigstore integration can be deployed. I don't agree that the status quo is "worse than useless", though I do agree that it has major issues.

While we're here, we should also talk briefly about the other recent improvement to the PyPI trust model: "Trusted Publishing", as discussed in the PyPI Blog and the Trail of Bits Blog. Trusted Publishing allows package uploaders to authenticate with an OIDC identity instead of a long-lived API key. My thoughts here are similar to those above for sigstore - removing the need to manage a long-lived secret is very welcome, but we need to have a wide array of non-commercial OIDC providers if OIDC is going to become a foundational piece of infrastructure for open source development.


[1]I've deliberately avoided using the phrase "supply chain" in relation to open source software here.

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