PIV provisioning on Linux and Mac (part I)

This is a follow-up to earlier series on using GoldKey hardware tokens on OS X for cryptographic applications such as SSH. One question left unanswered on the last post was how to provision certificates to the token on OS X and Linux, where there is no official support provided by GoldKey. It turns out the implications of that question reach far beyond the implementation details of a specific hardware vendor such as GoldKey. It forces a closer look at the PIV standard itself and canvas the web for open-source utilities available for working with PIV cards.

Provisioning from a high-level

First a quick recap on exactly what “provisioning” means for smart-cards that support PKI. Starting with a blank card, desired end state is to have a private-key residing on the card– ideally generated on-card and never having left the secure execution environment– along with an X509 digital certificate which has the corresponding public-key. (Repeat as desired: there can be more than one key/certificate slot. Case in point, PIV defines 4 types of keys with different use-cases such as signature and encryption.)

Provisioning, nuts and bolts

That process typically breaks down into four steps:

  1. Request the card to generate a key-pair and output the public key.
  2. Create a certificate signing-request (CSR) which contains that public key, and information about the user, and obtain a signature from the card.
  3. Submit the CSR to a certificate-authority and have the CA issue a certificate signed by the CA.
  4. Load the returned certificate on the card.

This is the most generic version of the flow. In particular it covers the self-signed certificate scenario as a special-case, where instead of signing a CSR we can sign a certificate to collapse steps #2 and #3. (In principle this could even have been implemented on-card but typically the complexity of ASN1 parsing and construction has discouraged smart-card developers from trying to do much with X509 on-card.) It is also worth noting that the CSR generation is a practical necessity because most CA implementations are designed to take a valid CSR as input. “Valid” being the operative adjective: that includes checking that the CSR is signed by a private-key which corresponds to the public key appearing in it. One could imagine a hypothetical CA that simply issued certificates given a public key– the signature on the CSR does not factor into the final X509 certificate issued in any way. In real life CA implementations are a bit more demanding so it is important to build that flexibility into the card provisioning flow.

Returning to these four steps, first observations is that #3 is the odd-man out. It takes place out-of-band without any interaction with the card. So we focus our attention on the remaining three.  Of these #1 and #4 actually change the state of the card by updating its contents, while #2 only involves using existing key material. This turns out to be an important distinction for many smart-card standards including PIV because the authentication model for those two modes are different. For example in PIV using a key typically requires user authentication, in other words entering a PIN. Card management on the other hand requires authenticating as the card administrator, which involves using a more complex challenge-response protocol using cryptographic keys described in NIST 800-73 part #2.**

Card-administrator keys for GoldKey

Accessing PIV settings from GoldKey client

That brings us to the first problem: in order to perform key-generation or loading certificates on the card, we must be in possession of the card management key (also referred to as PIV card application-administrator key, with key reference 0x9B per NIST SP 800-78-3) must be known for that specific card. PIV allows this key to use any number of the algorithms defined in the standard including 3DES, AES, even public-key options RSA or ECDSA. But in practice most vendors including Gemalto, Oberthur and GoldKey all appear to have settled on old-fashioned 3DES, in keeping with the retro-chic commitment to DES in smart-cards and financial applications.

In the case of GoldKey, all tokens are provisioned with an unspecified “default key” from the factory. Luckily the proprietary client software allows changing this key to one controlled by the user. This step requires a master-token, and having associated the current token with that particular master.

Configuring the PIV card-administration key

Configuring the PIV card-administration key

3DES keys are entered as 48 hex-bytes or 24 bytes total. While 3DES keys are only 168-bits, in keeping with traditional DES key representation, only 7 bits out of each byte are significant. Least-significant bit reserved for a parity check, which is ignored in modern implementations. GoldKey appears to follow that model. Somewhat confusingly the PIV standard refers to this as “card management keys” but they are not related to the Global Platform issuer-security-domain aka “card manager” keys. This is strictly a PIV application-level concept, which is independent of whether the underlying card is Global Platform compliant. (Of course in reality PIV applications are typically implemented on GP-compliant cards.)

Assuming we now have a token provisioned with a card-administration key we control– or perhaps we saved ourselves the effort by using a brand that comes preloaded with well-known default keys from the manufacturer– we can tackle steps #1 and #4 above.

[continue to part II]


** Incidentally this is why provisioning via the GoldKey Windows driver can not possibly be compliant with FIPS 201: it requires users to enter a PIN. There is no such mode in standard PIV; user PIN is neither sufficient nor necessary for administrative actions.

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