Using encryption

Obnam allows you to encrypt your backups. This chapter discusses why and how to do that.

You don't admit to being a spy, so isn't encryption unnecessary?

You're not the only one who cares about your data. A variety of governments, corporations, criminals, and overly curious snoopers und lookenpeepers may also be interested. (It's sometimes hard to tell them apart.) They might be interested in it to data in order to find evidence against you, blackmail you, or just curious about what you're talking about with your other friends.

They might be interested in your data from a statistical point of view, and don't particularly care about your specifically. Or they might be interested only in you.

Instead of reading your files and e-mail, or looking at your photos and videos, they might be interested in preventing your access to them, or to destroy your data. They might even want to corrupt your data, perhaps by planting child porn in your photo archive.

You protect your computer as well as you can to prevent these and other bad things from happening. You need to protect your backups with equal care.

If you back up to a USB drive, you should probably make the drive be encrypted. Likewise, if you back up to online storage. There are many forms of encryption, and I'm unqualified to give advice on this, but any of the common, modern ones should suffice except for quite determined attackers.

Instead of, or in addition to, encryption, you could ensure the physical security of your backup storage. Keep the USB drive in a safe, perhaps, or a safe deposit box.

The multiple backups you need to protect yourself against earthquakes, floods, and roving gangs of tricycle-riding clowns, are also useful against attackers. They might corrupt your live data, and the backups at your home, but probably won't be able to touch the USB drive encased in concrete and buried in the ground at a secret place only you know about.

The other side of the coin is that you might want to, or need to, ensure others do have access to your backed up data. For example, if the clown gang kidnaps you, your spouse might need access to you backups to be able to contact your MI6 handler to ask them to rescue you. Arranging safe access to (some) backups is an interesting problem to which there are various solutions. You could give your spouse the encryption passphrase, or give the passphrase to a trusted friend or your lawyer. You could also use something like [libgfshare] to escrow encryption keys more safely.

How Obnam encryption works

An Obnam repository contains several directories, for different types of data.

The per-client directory is encrypted so that only that client can access it. This means that only the client itself can see its generations, and the files in each generation.

The shared directories (client list, chunks) is encrypted so that all clients can use them. This allows clients to share chunks, so that de-duplication works across all clients.

This encryption scheme assumes that all clients sharing a repository trust each other, and that it's OK for them to be able to read all the chunk data they want. The encryption does not protect siblings from reading each others e-mail from the backup repository, for example, but it does protect them against their parents, if the parents don't have a suitable encryption key.

In addition to the encryption keys for a client you can add additional keys. These keys can also access the backup repository. For example, the parents' key might be added to the repository so that if need be, they could restore any child's data, even if the child had lost their own encryption key.

In a corporate setting, the a backup administrator key might be added so that the administrator can, for example, verify the integrity of the repository, or to access data of an employee who has won the lottery and isn't currently available due to bad Internet access to the Moon.

Such additional keys can be added either for any one client, or to all clients.

Setting up Obnam to use encryption

Obnam uses PGP keys, specifically the GNU Privacy Guard (GnuPG, gpg) implementation of them. To use encrypted backups, you need to first create a PGP key pair for yourself. See the GnuPG documentation for instructions.

Once you have a working GnuPG setup and a key pair (consisting of a public key and a secret key), you need to find the key identifier for them. Run the following command and pick your key from the list.

gpg --list-keys

The output will look something like this:

pub   4096R/5E8511F9 2009-07-22
uid                  Lars Wirzenius <>
sub   2048R/9BE35AE6 2011-08-05

That's the output for one key; there may be many keys. The key identifier is on the line staring with pub, in the second column after the slash. Above, it's 5E8511F9.

In the rest of the examples in this chapter, we'll assume your key identifier is CAFEFACE.

To set up encryption, use the --encrypt-with setting:

encrypt-with = CAFEFACE

That's all.

Note that a repository should be fully encrypted or not encrypted at all, and that you can't switch afterwards. If you change your mind about whether to use encryption at all, you'll need to start a new repository. All clients sharing a repository need to be using encryption, or else none of them may use encryption. If you mix encryption or cleartext backups, the error messages may prove to be confusing.

Obnam will automatically encrypt all the files it writes to the backup repository, and de-crypt them when needed. As long as you only have one encryption key for each client, and don't add additional keys, Obnam will take care of adding the right keys to the right places automatically.

Checking if a repository uses encryption

There is no direct way with Obnam to check if a repository uses encryption. However, you can check that manually: if your repository contains the file clientlist/key, the repository is encrypted.

FIXME: Managing encryption keys in a repository

This section discusses how to manage encryption keys in a repository: how to add additional keys for each toplevel, and how to change keys for a client. It also shows how to check what keys are being used, and what access each key has.