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How to verify Mastodon social platform users with cryptography

Use open source GPG key pairs and Keyoxide to prove your identity on Mastodon.
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Combination lock on keyboard

So your organization is moving to Mastodon, and now everybody wants to be verified. For most users, a simple verification link is sufficient for identity checking, but for your corporate brand, you may want something backed up with cryptography. The technology has been in use for years, and you may already use it in chat or email. It's GnuPG, an implementation of PGP, and it's usable for Mastodon now, thanks to the open source project Keyoxide.

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The process is simple. In fact, it's just four steps:

  1. Create a key pair.
  2. Add Ariadne Identity metadata to the key.
  3. Upload the key to OpenPGP.org and verify the key's email.
  4. Add a Keyoxide link to your organization's Mastodon profile.

Create a GPG key pair

You can create a GPG key pair using the gpg2 command from the GnuPG project:

$ gpg2 --full-generate-key

Follow the prompts until you have generated a key pair.

To get your key fingerprint, list your secret keys and find the one you've created for your organization:

$ gpg2 --list-secret-keys

The output displays your GnuPG keyring, containing at least one secret key. Locate the one you want to use for Mastodon, and find the long alphanumeric string just above a line starting with uid. That long number is your key's fingerprint. Here's an example:

sec rsa4096 2022-11-17 [SC]
      22420E443871CF4313B9E90D50C9169F563E50CF
uid [ultimate] Tux <tux@example.com>
ssb rsa4096 2022-11-17 [E]

This example key's fingerprint is 22420E443871CF4313B9E90D50C9169F563E50CF. Copy that into a document because you'll need it a lot during this process.

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Now you can add metadata to the key. Enter the GnuPG interface using the gpg2 --edit-key command along with the key's fingerprint:

$ gpg2 --edit-key 22420E443871CF4313B9E90D50C9169F563E50CF

At the GnuPG prompt, select the user ID (the key owner's name and email address) and designate it as the primary user. Each UID is numbered. In this example, there's only one user ID (uid [ultimate] Tux <tux@example.com>).

gpg> uid 1
gpg> primary

Add Ariadne metadata

For Keyoxide to recognize your Mastodon identity, you must add particular Ariadne metadata: The metadata must start with proof@ariadne.id= and be followed by the URL of your Mastodon profile page.

In this example, the URL is https://example.com/@tux:

gpg> notation

Enter the notation: proof@ariadne.id=http://example.com/@tux

gpg> save

Export your key and upload it to OpenPGP

Extract the public key and its metadata from your key ring:

$ gpg2 --armor --export \
22420E443871CF4313B9E90D50C9169F563E50CF > pubkey.asc

Open your web browser and navigate to keys.openpgp.org.

On the keys.openpgp.org website, click the Upload link to upload your exported key. Do this even if you have experience with GPG keys. Don't try to use --send-key to do this! This step is unique to the Keyoxide process.

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Upload your key to openpgp
(Seth Kenlon, CC BY-SA 4.0)

After you have uploaded your key, click the Send confirmation email button next to your email address to confirm that you own the email your key claims it belongs to. It can take 15 minutes or so, but when you receive an email from Openpgp.org, click the confirmation link to verify your email address.

Link Mastodon and Keyoxide

Now that you've set everything up, you can use Keyoxide as your verification link for Mastodon. Go to your Mastodon profile page and click the Edit profile link.

On the Edit profile page, scroll down to the Profile Metadata section. The Label field is arbitrary, so you can use terms like Verification or PGP or whatever you feel is appropriate.

In the Content field, type https://keyoxide.org/hkp/ followed by your key fingerprint. In this example, the full URL is https://keyoxide.org/hkp/22420E443871CF4313B9E90D50C9169F563E50CF.

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Profile metadata web page
(Seth Kenlon, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Click the Save button, and then return to your profile page.

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PGP verified identity
(Seth Kenlon, CC BY-SA 4.0)

You can click the Keyoxide link in your profile to see your Keyoxide "profile" page. This page is actually just a rendering of the GnuPG key you created. Keyoxide's job is to parse your key and to be a valid destination when you need to link to it.

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Solve the identity problem

The advantage of GnuPG goes far beyond just being a destination for verification links. Thanks to digital signing, a PGP key can have an explicit chain of verification. Get your fellow sysadmins to sign your organization's key, and start building a ring of trust that goes far beyond the old blue Twitter checkmark. Help Mastodon show the internet how digital encryption, signing, and identity are supposed to work.

[ Learn 4 key differences between Twitter and Mastodon. ] 

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Topics:   Security   Web servers   Software  
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Seth Kenlon

Seth Kenlon is a UNIX geek and free software enthusiast. More about me

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