A PGP key needs to be signed to confirm that it's connected to a user's email address
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PGP Key Signing

How to sign a PGP public key to enhance the web of trust and/or address a key tampering attack


  • A new team member is being onboarded and a new key is being generated for them;
  • A client has been targeted with a PGP key tampering attack (additional non-revoked public keys have been created and uploaded to the keyservers without their knowledge)

In both cases, we need to enhance the web of trust for a PGP key to help confirm that the PGP key belongs to a legitimate user and is connected to their email address.


Once PGP has been set up for the client/new team member and we have a copy of the public key, if the below requirements are met, we can proceed to verify and sign it. The action of signing someone’s public key should be done very carefully, so before signing a key, we need to verify that the key we are signing is actually connected to the client’s/new team member’s email, and that the owner of the key is also the legitimate owner of the connected email account. The following steps are required for the verification:

  • The client has been vetted and is a member of civil society
  • We have met the key owner in person, or at least in video-chat
  • We have proof that the key owner is the legitimate owner of the connected email account, for example because an intermediary can vouch for them, or we have asked them to reply to our email
  • We have checked the fingerprint of the key we want to sign corresponds to the fingerprint of the user’s key
  • If we are replying to an incident, we should check if the client has been targeted by a key tampering attack

If the verification is successful, we can proceed to sign the key and use this template to inform the client/new staff member that we are going to sign their key.

  1. If the client is willing to upload their PGP key to the keyservers, we can proceed to sign the key. Once we have signed it, we can use this template to send the client/new staff member his/her signed public key and instruct them on how to publish it on the keyserver.
  2. If the client would rather not publish their PGP key, we can sign their key locally, so that they cannot be exported (but this won’t help address a key tampering attack).

If the verification is not possible or successful, we should not sign their PGP key.


  • We should not directly upload the signed key to the keyservers.
  • We should warn the client about the risks of having their key signed by a member of the Digital Security Helpline, as this will disclose a connection between them and the Helpline, and also of publishing their PGP public key to the keyservers in the first place, as this can expose the fact that they are using encryption.
  • Once the client/new staff member has uploaded their key to the keyservers, we should check if our signature has been reflected in the public key, else we should get back to the client and offer assistance.
  • If a Helpline team member has already signed the key, we can skip the verification process and sign the key.