Using Intel SGX for SSH keys (part I)

Previous posts looked at using dedicated cryptographic hardware— smart-cards, USB tokens or the TPM— for managing key material related to common scenarios such as SSH, full-disk-encryption or PGP. Here we consider doing the same using a built-in feature of recent-generation Intel CPUs: Software Guard Extensions or SGX for short. The first part will focus on the mechanics of achieving that result using existing open-source software, while a follow-up post will compare SGX to alternative versions that leverage discrete hardware.

First let’s clarify the objective by drawing a parallel with smart-cards. The point of using a smart-card for storing keys is to isolate the secret material from code running on the untrusted host machine. While host applications can instruct the card to use those keys, for example to sign or decrypt a message, it remains at arm’s length from the key itself. In a properly implemented design, raw key-bits are only accessible to the card and can not be extracted out of the card’s secure execution environment. In addition to simplifying key management by guaranteeing that only copy of the key exists at all times, it reduces exposure of the secret to malicious host applications which are prevented from making additional copies for future exploitation.

Most of this translates directly to the SGX context, except for how the boundary is drawn. SGX is not a a separate piece of hardware but a different execution mode of the CPU itself. The corresponding requirement can be rephrased as: manage keys such that raw keys are only accessible to a specific enclave, while presenting an “oracle” abstraction to other applications running on the untrusted commodity OS.

The idea of using a secure execution environment as a “virtual” cryptographic hardware is so common that one may expect to find an existing solution for this. Sure enough a quick search “PKCS11 SGX” turns up two open-source projects on Github. The first one appears to be a work-in-progress that is not quite functional at this time. The second one is more promising: called crypto-api-toolkit the project is under the official Intel umbrella at Github and features a full-fledged implementation of a cryptographic token as an enclave, addressable through a PKCS#11 interface. This property is crucial for interoperability since most applications on Linux are designed to access cryptographic hardware through a PKCS#11 interface. That long list includes OpenSSH (client and server), browsers (Firefox and Chrome) and VPN clients (the reference OpenVPN client as well openconnect which is compatible with Cisco VPN appliance.) This crypto-api-toolkit project turns out to check all the necessary box.


This PoC is based on an earlier version of the code-base which runs openssl inside the enclave. The latest version on Github has switched to SoftHSMv2 as the underlying engine. (In many ways that is is a more natural choice, considering SoftHSM itself aims to be a pure, portable simulation of a cryptographic token intended for execution on commodity CPUs.)

Looking closer at the code, there are a number of minor issues that prevent direct use of the module with common applications for manipulating tokens such as the OpenSC suite.

  • crypto-api-toolkit has some unusual requirements around object attributes, which are above and beyond what the PKCS#11 specification demands
  • While the enclave is running a full-featured version of openssl, the implementation restricts the available algorithms and parameters. For example it arbitrarily restricts elliptic-curve keys to a handful of curves, even though openssl recognizes a large collection of curves by OID.
  • A more significant compatibility issue lies in the management object attributes. The stock implementation does not support the expected way of exporting EC public-keys, namely by querying for a specific attribute on the public-key object.

After a few minor tweaks [minimal patch] to address these issues, SSH use-case works end-to-end, if not necessarily appease all PKCS#11 conformance subtleties.

Kicking the tires

First step is building and install the project. This creates all of the necessary shared libraries, including the signed enclave and installs them in the right location but does not yet create a virtual token. The easiest way to do that is to run the sample PKCS#11 application included with the project.


Initialize a virtual PKCS#11 token implemented in SGX


Now we can observe the existence of a new token and interrogate it. pkcs11-tool utility from the OpenSC suite comes in handy for this. For example we can query for supported algorithms, also known as “mechanisms” in PKCS#11 terminology:


New virtual token visible and advertising different algorithms.

(Note that algorithms recognized by OpenSC are listed by their symbolic name such as “SHA256-RSA-PKCS” while newer algorithm such as EdDSA are only shown by numeric ID .)

This token however is not yet in usable state. Initializing a token defines the security-officer (SO) role, which is the PKCS#11 equivalent of the administrator. But the standard “user” role must be initialized with a separate call by the SO first. Quick search shows that the sample application uses the default SO PIN of 12345678:


Initializing the PKCS#11 user role.

With the user role initialized, it is time for generating some keys:


RSA key generation using an SGX enclave as PKCS#11 token


The newly created keypair is reflected in the appearance of corresponding files on the local file system. Each token is associated with a subdirectory under “/opt/intel/crypto-api-toolkit/tokens” where metadata and objects associated with the token are persisted. This is necessary because unlike a smart-card or USB token, an enclave does not have its own dedicated storage. Instead any secret material that needs to be persisted must be exported in sealed state and saved by the untrusted OS. Otherwise any newly generated object would cease to exist once the machine is shutdown.

Next step is enumerating the objects created and verifying that they are visible to the OpenSSH client:


Enumerating PKCS#11 objects (with & without login) and retrieving the public-key for SSH usage

In keeping with common convention, the RSA private-key has the CKA_PRIVATE attribute set. It will not be visible when enumerating objects unless the user first logs in to the virtual token. This is why the private key object is only visible in the second invocation.

OpenSSH can also see the public-key and deem this RSA key usable for authentication. Somewhat confusingly, ssh-keygen with the “-D” argument does not generate a new key as implied by the command name. It enumerates existing keys available on all available tokens associated with the given PKCS#11 module.

We can add this public-key to a remote server and attempt a connection to check if the openssh client is able to sign with the key. While Github does not provide interactive shells, it is arguably easiest way to check for usability of SSH keys:


SSH using private-key managed in SGX

Beyond RSA

Elliptic curve keys also work:


Elliptic-curve key generation using NIST P-256 curve

Starting with release 8.0, OpenSSH can use elliptic curve keys on hardware tokens. This is why the patch adds support for querying the CKA_EC_POINT attribute on the public-key object, by defining a new enclave call to retrieve that attribute. (As an aside: while that  follows the existing pattern for querying the CKA_EC_PARAMS attribute, this is an inefficient design. These attributes are neither sensitive or variable over the lifetime of the object. In fact there is nothing sensitive about a public-key object that requires calling into the enclave. It would have been much more straightforward to export this object once and for all in the clear for storage in the untrusted side.)

These ECDSA keys are also usable for SSH with more recent versions of OpenSSH:


More recent versions of OpenSSH support using ECDSA keys via PKCS#11

Going outside the SSH scenario for a second, we can also generate elliptic-curve keys over a different curve such as secp256k1. While that key will not be suitable for SSH, it can be used for signing cryptocurrency transactions:


Generating and using an ECDSA key over secp256k1, commonly used for cryptocurrency applications such as Bitcoin

While this proof-of-concept suggests that it is possible to use an SGX enclave as a virtual cryptographic token, it is a different question how that compares to using using real dedicated hardware. The next post will take up that comparison.




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