remote gpg-agent via ssh forwarding

Calvin Ardi

gpg-agent does a good job of caching passphrases, and is essential when using an authentication subkey exported as an SSH public key (especially if used with a Yubikey).

With gpg-agent forwarding, we can do things with gpg on a remote machine while keeping the private keys on the local computer, like decrypting files or signing emails.

As of OpenSSH 6.7+ and GnuPG 2.1+, we can reliably do gpg-agent forwarding. This is tailored for OS X, but will probably work on GNU/Linux.

If you already have gpg2 and keys setup, you'll probably want to skip to "Step 2: Using remote-gpg".

Please send any comments, bugs, or fixes to

Install and configure software

  1. install OpenSSH 6.7+ (MacPorts provides OpenSSH 7.2).

  2. install GnuPG 2.1+ via source or GnuPG for OSX (this will recommend that you remove GPG Suite, if installed)

    OS X and GPG

    Getting GPG to work with OS X can be a frustrating exercise.

    GPG Suite and MacPorts install GnuPG 2.0.x, which might be insufficient. GnuPG for OSX has many versions of GnuPG 2.1.x. At the time of writing, we'll use GnuPG 2.1.11-002, released 2016-Feb-10.

    You will have to figure out the best configuration for yourself.

  3. create symlinks to helpful utilities:

    ln -s /usr/local/gnupg-2.1/bin/gpg-connect-agent \
    ln -s /usr/local/gnupg-2.1/libexec/gpg-preset-passphrase \

    GnuPG for OS X

    By default, gpg2 will be installed to /usr/local/gnupg-2.1 and create some symlinks to /usr/local/bin.

  4. create your GPG config (~/.gnupg/gpg.conf) and keys (not covered here)

  5. create your gpg-agent config (~/.gnupg/gpg-agent.conf):

    # use a GUI
    # pinentry-program /usr/local/gnupg-2.1/bin/
    # don't use a GUI
    pinentry-program /opt/local/bin/pinentry-curses
    # set up just for forwarding
    extra-socket /Users/username/.gnupg/S.gpg-agent-extra
    # each time cache is accessed, reset the timer to this
    default-cache-ttl 600
    # after this time, expire cache entry
    max-cache-ttl 3600
    # allows use of `gpg-preset-passphrase`
    # outdated options as of 2.1.11
  6. start or reload the agent with gpg-connect-agent. This can also be used to manually clear the cache.

    gpg-connect-agent reloadagent /bye

Using remote-gpg

remote-gpg, written by Dustin J. Mitchell, is a great tool that allows the user to control when gpg-agent is available.

I've made some tweaks to Dustin's script, remote-gpg, to account for (1) different local and remote homedirs, (2) sleep before deleting remote socket (3) double-quotes to sh -c instead of single-quotes to expand local variables:

#! /bin/bash

# remote-gpg   
# original author: Dustin J. Mitchell <>

set -e

if [ -z "$host" ]; then
    echo "Supply a hostname"
    exit 1

# our local and remote homedirs might be different
# TODO remote homedirs can vary in paths, too

# remove any existing agent socket (in theory `StreamLocalBindUnlink yes`
# does this, but in practice, not so much)
/opt/local/bin/ssh $host rm -f $REMOTE_HOME/.gnupg/S.gpg-agent
/opt/local/bin/ssh \
  -t -R $REMOTE_HOME/.gnupg/S.gpg-agent:$LOCAL_HOME/.gnupg/S.gpg-agent-extra \
  $host \
  sh -c "echo; echo \"Perform remote GPG operations and hit enter\"; \
      read; \
      sleep 2; \
      rm -f $REMOTE_HOME/.gnupg/S.gpg-agent";
  1. add the following ~/.gnupg/gpg-agent.conf (if you didn't previously do it):

    # use a GUI
    # pinentry-program /usr/local/gnupg-2.1/bin/
    # don't use a GUI
    pinentry-program /opt/local/bin/pinentry-curses
    # set up just for forwarding
    extra-socket /Users/username/.gnupg/S.gpg-agent-extra
  2. on the local machine, run remote-gpg $HOSTNAME

  3. on the remote machine, run the desired gpg2 operations

    if your private keys have not already been loaded, you may or may not get a passphrase prompt depending on which pinentry you're using.

    if using pinentry-mac (GUI), you will locally be prompted for your passphrase (with gpg2 letting you know that it's for a remote operation)

    if using pinentry-curses (no GUI), you will not be prompted for your passphrase and will need to "pre-seed" it with gpg-preset-passphrase or the following:

    gpg2 --output /dev/null --sign -u 0xKEY_ID /dev/null
  4. when finished, go to the local window and press "Enter".

    optionally, clear the password cache with gpg-connect-agent reloadagent /bye

Other Things

I haven't tested this with authentication or encryption GPG subkeys with a Yubikey, yet.