A natural question from using SSH for a while is whether we can reuse the SSH authentication key for other use, say, encrypting a file. The answer is affirmative in OpenSSL but it is not straightforward.

OpenSSL overview

OpenSSL is a suite of tools. We can see the list of all “commands” it supported by

$ openssl list-standard-commands

The following are some common commands:

  • ca: create certificate authorities
  • dgst: compute hash functions
  • enc: encrypt/decrypt using symmetric key algorithms
    • to see all available ciphers: openssl list-cipher-commands
    • e.g., aes-{128,192,256}-{cbc,ecb}
  • genrsa: generate a pair of public/private key for RSA algorithm
  • password: generate hashed passwords
  • rand: generation of pseudo-random bit strings
  • rsa: RSA data management
  • rsautl: to encrypt/decrypt or sign/verify signature with RSA
  • verify: checkings for X509
  • x509: data managing for X509

The enc command can encrypt or decrypt a file, using symmetric ciphers. We will look further into it in the following.

Encryption with symmetric cipher

To encrypt and decrypt a file, plain.txt, of arbitrary size, we use the following commands respectively:

$ openssl enc -aes-256-cbc -in plain.txt -out plain.txt.enc -pass pass:pa55w0rd
$ openssl enc -aes-256-cbc -d -in plain.txt.enc -out plain.txt -pass pass:pa55w0rd

OpenSSL will ask for password from stdin if -pass is not provided in the command line. We can also provide an optional -salt flag to the enc command to request for a salted password to be used. There is a special cipher, -base64 that does not take password as base64 is just an encoding, not really a cipher.

The above example is using AES-256 as cipher. OpenSSL supports a number of ciphers: AES, Blowfish, RC4, 3DES, RC2, DES, CAST5, SEED. Some of these are stream ciphers and others are block ciphers. The cbc stands for “cipher block chaining”, which is one of the many block cipher mode of operations. The mode of operaions is to address how we should handle multiple block of data in encryption using block cipher. Below are the summary of some common modes, with plaintext blocks denoted by ; ciphertext blocks ; encryption function with key denoted by :

  • Electronic Codebook (ECB)
    • Operation:
    • Ciphertext:
  • Cipher Block Chaining (CBC)
    • Operation:
    • Ciphertext: with
  • Propagating Cipher Block Chaining (PCBC)
    • Operation:
    • Ciphertext: with
  • Cipher Feedback (CFB)
    • Operation:
    • Ciphertext: with
  • Output Feedback (OFB)
    • Operation: with
    • Ciphertext:
  • Counter (CTR)
    • Operation: with IV=token() where is a deterministic function, usually an identity function
    • Ciphertext:

We usually use CBC, CFB, or OFB for better security.

Digitally sign a file

Cryptography is not only for encryption. We can also cryptographically verify the integrity of a file. This involves public key cryptography but we cannot use it on a file of large size. We should first generate a digest from a file using a hash algorithm:

$ openssl dgst -sha256 -out digest.txt input.txt

The -sha256 is a hash algorithm, the alternatives are -sha1, -ripemd160, -md5 and so on. To see all supported we can use openssl list-message-digest-commands.

We can now have a small-size digest that correspond to the larger data. To sign it, we use the RSA algorithm through the rsautl command in OpenSSL with a private key stored in private.pem:

$ openssl rsautl -sign -in digest.txt -out signature.txt -inkey private.pem

The signature file will contain digest.txt and we can “verify” the signature and get back the digest.txt using the public key (assumed stored in public.pem):

$ openssl rsautl -verify -in signature.txt -out digest.txt -inkey public.pem -pubin
Verified OK

Indeed we can do both hashing and signing at the same time:

$ openssl dgst -sha256 -sign private.pem -out signature.txt input.txt

and this can be verified with:

$ openssl dgst -sha256 -verify public.pem -signature signature.txt input.txt

But the signature in this two approaches differ, namely, the dgst sign is to create a hash in ASN1 encoding and signing the ASN1 encoded hash. The rsautl sign is signing without using the ASN1 encoding. The dgst version does not limit to RSA key pairs. We can also use elliptic curve (ECDSA):

$ openssl dgst -ecdsa-with-SHA1 -sign private.pem -out signature.bin input.txt
$ openssl dgst -ecdsa-with-SHA1 -verify public.pem -signature signature.bin input.txt
Verified OK

To see if ECDSA can be used with message digest algorithms other than SHA1, check

$ openssl list-message-digest-algorithms

Encrypt a small file with public key

Public key cryptography can only be used to encrypt a small file. For example, 2048-bit RSA can only encrypt a file no more than 245 bytes

If the input file is small enough, we can encrypt and decrypt using the following commands:

$ openssl rsautl -encrypt -oaep -in small.txt -pubin -inkey public.pem -out small.txt.enc
$ openssl rsautl -decrypt -oaep -in small.txt.enc -inkey private.pem -out small.txt

The -oaep is optional but recommanded. It adds padding to input and if we used it in encryption, we must use it in decryption as well.

Key handling

OpenSSL provides tools to generate key pairs. For example, RSA key pair (both public and private keys in ame file) can be generated by:

$ openssl genrsa -out key.pem 1024

and optionally we can encrypt the keypair using a passphrase:

$ openssl rsa -in key.pem -des3 -out enc-key.pem
writing RSA key
Enter PEM pass phrase:
Verifying - Enter PEM pass phrase:

Indeed, genrsa is deprecated and OpenSSL recommends to use genpkey instead, which allows various kind of public key algorithms to be used:

$ openssl genpkey -out key.pem -algorithm rsa -pkeyopt rsa_keygen_bits:2048
$ openssl genpkey -out key.pem -algorithm rsa -pkeyopt rsa_keygen_bits:2048 -des3
Enter PEM pass phrase:
Verifying - Enter PEM pass phrase:

If we want to extract the public key from the key pair, such as to send it out:

$ openssl rsa -in key.pem -pubout -out public.pem

SSH can also use RSA keys for authentication, only the SSH public key’s format is not the default PEM format of OpenSSL (private key, however, is). We can make use of ssh-keygen to convert an existing key file (public only, even if you provide the private key as input) into PKCS8 format:

$ ssh-keygen -e -f ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub -m PKCS8 > public.pem

or conversely, ask ssh-keygen to convert the PKCS8 format public key into the format SSH uses:

$ openssl ecparam -genkey -name prime256v1 -noout -out prime256v1.key.pem
$ openssl ec -in prime256v1.key.pem -pubout | ssh-keygen -f /dev/stdin -i -m PKCS8
read EC key
writing EC key
ecdsa-sha2-nistp256 AAAAE2VjZHNhLXNoYTItbmlzdHAyNTYAAAAIbmlzdHAyNTYAAABBBC3FrhznL2pQ/titzgnWrbznR3ve2eNEgevog/aS7SszS9Vkq0uFefavBF4M2Txc34sIQ5TPiZxYdm9uO1siXSw=

Alternatively, OpenSSL can convert a private RSA key or convert a private RSA key to its public key (of course, not the other way round):

$ openssl rsa -in id_rsa -pubout -outform pem > public.pem
$ openssl rsa -in id_rsa -outform pem > private.pem

The PKCS8 format key file contains the base64 encoded key and bears the boundary line saying BEGIN PRIVATE KEY or so. But OpenSSL’s default PEM format will bear the key type name, such as BEGIN EC PRIVATE KEY. The base64 encoded binary is also in different representations: OpenSSH use XDR-like wire format but OpenSSL use X.509 in ASN.1 (see also RSA public key format)

Take elliptic curve keys as an example, we can convert between the two format (with optional encryption to the key itself) by:

$ openssl ec -aes-128-cbc -in pkcs8.pem -out tradfile.pem
$ openssl ec -in pkcs8.pem -out tradfile.pem
$ openssl pkcs8 -topk8 -in tradfile.pem -out pkcs8.pem
$ openssl pkcs8 -topk8 -nocrypt -in tradfile.pem -out pkcs8.pem

The first two above is to convert a PKCS8 key into traditional PEM format. The latter two is the other way round. By default, output of openssl pkcs8 will be encrypted but openssl ec is unencrypted. We need a switch to toggle the otherwise. These output key files are in base64 encoding. We can elect to make binary key file as well, a.k.a. DER format, using -outform DER switch:

$ openssl ec -in pkcs8.pem -outform DER -out tradfile.der
$ openssl pkcs8 -topk8 -in tradfile.pem -outform DER -out pkcs8.der

Elliptic curve public key is generated by openssl ecparam but there are several curves in the family that we have to choose one. The name of all supported curves can be seen by:

$ openssl ecparam -list_curves

Each curve is defined by certain parameters. We can pick one (e.g secp256k1) and generate a EC parameter file:

$ openssl ecparam -name secp256k1 -out secp256k1.pem
$ openssl ecparam -name secp256k1 -out secp256k1.pem -param_enc explicit

The latter one will give an “explicit” parameter file that keeps all EC parameters. This is useful to apply this to older version of OpenSSL that does not understand the name of the curve so we can generate the whole curve from scratch. Now given the parameter file, the elliptic curve key is then generated (-genkey) and parameter is not included in the output (-noout):

$ openssl ecparam -in secp256k1.pem -genkey -noout -out ecprivate.pem

or we can use pkey command to generate the key pair:

$ openssl ecparam -genkey -name secp256k1 -out param_and_key.pem
$ openssl pkey -in param_and_key.pem -out ecprivate.pem
$ openssl pkey -in param_and_key.pem -pubout -out ecpublic.pem

or we can combine the parameter file generation and key generation together:

$ openssl ecparam -name secp256k1 -genkey -noout -out private.pem

The whole workflow

We show RSA and EC separately.

using RSA key pair

Assume we have the public and private keys in files public.pem and private.pem respectively, The procedure is:

  1. generate a random 32-byte (256-bit) password for symmetric cipher
  2. encrypt the file of arbitrary size with the 256-bit password using AES-256
  3. encrypt the symmetric cipher password using RSA public key
  4. [optional] digest and sign the file with the RSA public key
  5. deliver the signature, encrypted password, and encrypted data file, delete the original file and generated plaintext password

The commands are:

openssl rand -out password.txt 32
openssl enc -aes-256-cbc -salt -in bigfile.txt -out bigfile.txt.enc -pass file:password.txt
openssl rsautl -encrypt -oaep -pubin -inkey public.pem -in password.txt -out password.txt.enc
openssl dgst -sha256 -sign private.pem -out signature.txt bigfile.txt
echo "attached" | mutt -a signature.txt -a password.txt.enc -a bigfile.txt.enc -s "encrypted files" -c recipient@example.com -y

The first command, openssl rand, can take an extra option -base64 to encode the output in base64.

If we want to use key from SSH, the openssl rsautil command becomes the following instead:

openssl rsautl -encrypt -oaep -pubin -inkey <(ssh-keygen -e -f ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub -m PKCS8) -in password.txt -out password.txt.enc

Decryption and verification is to do the reverse:

  1. decrypt the symmetric cipher password using RSA private key
  2. decrypt the file of arbitrary size with the password using AES-256
  3. [optional] verify the integrity of the file with the signature
openssl rsautl -decrpyt -oaep -inkey private.pem -in password.txt.enc -out password.txt
openssl enc -aes-256-cbc -d -in bigfile.txt.enc -out bigfile.txt -pass file:password.txt
openssl dgst -sha256 -verify public.pem -signature signature.txt input.txt

If we want to use key from SSH, the openssl rsautil command becomes the following instead:

openssl rsautl -decrypt -oaep -inkey ~/.ssh/id_rsa -in password.txt.enc -out password.txt

using elliptic curve key pair

The procedure for EC is similar, but EC cryptography does not define anything about encryption and decryption. For this purpose, we will use Diffie-Hellman exchange with the EC keys to compute a shared secret (i.e., we need Alice and Bob’s key pairs in the process, four keys in total) and apply the shared secret as password for symmetric cipher. If we only have the recipient key pair, we can generate the other key pair temporarily, but the key must be in the same bit length for the Diffie-Hellman to work:

  1. Generate a temporary EC private key using openssl ec
  2. Use the recipient’s public key to derive a shared secret using openssl pkeyutl
  3. Encrypt the plaintext using openssl enc using the derived secret key
  4. Generate the EC public key from the private key using openssl ecparam
  5. Deliver the public key and the encrypted file to the recipient


openssl ec -genkey -param_enc explicit -out temppriv.pem -name brainpool512r1
openssl pkeyutl -derive -inkey temppriv.pem -peerkey public.pem -out secret.txt
openssl enc -aes-256-cbc -in bigfile.txt -out bigfile.txt.enc -pass file:secret.txt
openssl ecparam -in temppriv.pem -pubout -out temppub.pem
echo "attached" | mutt -a temppub.txt -a bigfile.txt.enc -s "encrypted files" -c recipient@example.com -y

The openssl enc command will use the shared secret generated from Diffie-Hellman to generate the IV and key but if we use -pass file:secret.txt, the password is read from the first line of it (OpenSSL pretending the input file is a text file). If the binary secret file happen to contain some special characters (e.g., first byte is NULL), the encryption command may fail. A sure way to solve the issue is to save the shared secret in base64, e.g.

$ openssl pkeyutl -derive -inkey temppriv.pem -peerkey public.pem | base64 -w0 > secret.txt

Optinally, we can also provide hash of the file file for integrity check. Besides the signature as mentioned above, we can also use HMAC of, for example, the cipher text:

$ openssl dgst -sha256 -hmac secret.txt
SHA256(secret.txt)= a713a86fa73ccfaf96f5b073205170dcb9ff78ae8c3ab225311e4aa61dc94d38
$ KEY=`openssl dgst -sha256 -hmac secret.txt|awk '{print $2}'`
$ openssl dgst -sha256 -mac HMAC -macopt "hexkey:$KEY" -out hmac.txt bigfile.txt.enc

To decrypt is to reverse the work:

  1. Use the sender’s public key to derive a shared secret using openssl pkeyutl
  2. Generate the HMAC from ciphertext
  3. Verify the HMAC matches
  4. Decrypt the cipher text using openssl enc using the derived secret key


openssh pkeyutl -derive -inkey private.pem -peerkey temppub.pem -out secret.txt
openssl dgst -sha256 -mac HMAC -macopt "hexkey:`openssl dgst -sha256 -hmac secret.txt|awk '{print $2}'`" -out my_hmac.txt bigfile.txt.enc
openssl enc -d -aes-256-cbc -in bigfile.txt.enc -out bigfile.txt -pass file:secret.txt