SSH into Google Compute Engine VMs with OpenPGP USB token/SmartCard

Matěj Laitl · July 5, 2020 · 2 min read

illustration Do you frequently SSH into Google Compute Engine VMs using gcloud compute ssh ... and own a physical OpenPGP-compatible SmartCard/USB key? This post, also serving as a future note to myself, shows how to use these together for fun and profit convenience and security.


  • Linux (Mac and maybe even Windows may use a similar trick, but I have no way to test)
  • Physical OpenPGP-compatible USB key or a SmartCard at hand.
  • The USB key/SmartCard configured (also) for SSH authentication (per links above).
    • $ gpg --card-status  # output should contain something similar to
      Authentication key: 0EFC F3FD 3AFC 6D57 E0A4  1FB9 0C44 AEC0 3034 55E0
  • Configured gpg-agent to act as an SSH agent:
    • $ ssh-add -l  # should say something like
      2048 SHA256:cDS0g8TiH0bJJthhJFW/GqKDmCnopkcEKSiRuEEAXmY cardno:000000012345 (RSA)


$ ssh-add -L > ~/.ssh/  # overwrite (!) the public key with OpenPGP one
$ echo "fake content, actual private key on OpenPGP HW token" > ~/.ssh/google_compute_engine

How Did We Get There

gcloud compute ssh is just a tiny wrapper around ssh that does a couple of things on top of it:

  1. uses ~/.ssh/google_compute_engine(.pub) SSH (public) key file path instead of standard ~/.ssh/id_rsa(.pub),
  2. generates the key-pair automatically if it doesn’t exist,
  3. updates target VM metadata (its ~/.ssh/authorized_keys) with the public SSH key before connecting (the convenient, and tricky, part).

It should be possible to fool gcloud compute ssh by supplying the OpenPGP-backed public SSH key at the location it expects it, let’s try:

$ ssh-add -L > ~/.ssh/
$ gcloud compute ssh bencher
WARNING: The private SSH key file for gcloud does not exist.
WARNING: Your SSH key files are broken.
private key (NOT FOUND) [/home/strohel/.ssh/google_compute_engine]
public key  (OK)        [/home/strohel/.ssh/]
We are going to overwrite all above files.
Do you want to continue (y/N)?  N

Hmmm, gcloud was being a bit too smart here. We don’t have the private key in file, because that’s the entire point of confining it into a separate hardware device. Let’s try to cheat a bit more:

$ touch ~/.ssh/google_compute_engine
$ gcloud compute ssh bencher
WARNING: The private SSH key file for gcloud is empty.

Still no avail. Let’s outsmart gcloud completely:

$ echo "fake content, actual private key on OpenPGP HW token" > ~/.ssh/google_compute_engine
$ gcloud compute ssh bencher
Last login: ...

Yay. That’s it, we need to write the public key in SSH format into, and some random content into google_compute_engine.


  1. I have tested this successfully with YubiKey 4 and ZeitControl “BasicCard” SmartCard (no longer) provided by FSFE.
  2. If you try to SSH without your OpenPGP token available, the error will look like:
    $ gcloud compute ssh bencher
    Load key "/home/strohel/.ssh/google_compute_engine": invalid format
  3. Some folks say they need to write the authentication keygrip into ~/.gnupg/sshcontrol file. For me this works without touching the sshcontrol file (it contains only comments). I suspect that it is used only for file-based GPG-as-SSH keys, and not relevant for GPG-as-SSH keys backed by HW tokens.
  4. To resolve some problems with card “PIN Entry” dialog not showing up sometimes, I have this snippet in my ~/.bashrc:
    # Needed to make gpg-agent as ssh-agent pop-up pinentry correctly
    echo UPDATESTARTUPTTY | gpg-connect-agent >/dev/null
  5. Sometimes, during SSH operations like git push, I get Agent refused operation errors from gpg-agent. A re-plug and/or restart of the PC/SC Smart Card Daemon (systemctl restart pcscd) helps.
  6. For modern OpenSSH versions (8.2+ on both client and server) and security tokens (supporting FIDO2/U2F) a technically different alternative (that does not involve OpenPGP/GnuPG) exists, as described in Google Cloud docs and elsewhere.

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