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Remoting / Forwarding

Smartcards or hardware security modules (HSM) are technologies to keep private keys on devices physically isolated to a device only available to the user. That way only the intended user can use that device to authenticate, authorize or perform other functions that involve the private keys. These come usually in the form of a USB device or token which is plugged into the local computer.

In modern "cloud" computing, it is often desirable to virtually transfer such a device on remote servers. For example, one can sign software or documents on a remote server, use the local smart card to authorize itself to Kerberos, or any other possible use. There are various approaches to tackle that problem, and on different levels of the smart card application stack. It is possible to forward the USB device holding the smart card, or forward the lower-level PC/SC protocol which some smart cards talk, or forward the high-level interface used to communicate with smart cards, the PKCS#11 interface.

To address that problem, in p11-kit, we allow the forwarding of the higher level smart card interface, PKCS#11. In the following paragraphs we describe the approach and tools needed to perform that forwarding over SSH secure communication channels.


We assume having a local workstation, and a remote server. On the local computer we have inserted a smart card, in our examples we use a Nitrokey card with the OpenSC drivers. We will forward the card from the workstation to the remote server.

Setting up the PKCS#11 forwarding server on a local client

To forward a smartcard to a remote server, we first need to identify which smartcards are available. To list the smartcards currently attached to the local computer, use the p11tool command from the gnutls package. For example:

$ p11tool --list-tokens
Token 6:
        URL: pkcs11:model=PKCS%2315%20emulated;;serial=DENK0000000;token=UserPIN%20%28Daiki%27s%20token%29
        Label: UserPIN (Daiki's token)
        Type: Hardware token
        Model: PKCS#15 emulated
        Serial: DENK0000000

This is the entry for the card we'd like to forward to remote system. The important pieces are the 'pkcs11:' URL listed above, and the module name. Once we determine which smartcard to forward, we expose it to a local Unix domain socket, with the following p11-kit server command.

$ p11-kit server --provider /usr/lib64/pkcs11/ "pkcs11:model=PKCS%2315%20emulated;;serial=DENK0000000;token=UserPIN%20%28Daiki%27s%20token%29"

Here we provide to the server the module location (optional) with the --provider option, as well as the URL of the card. We copied the values from the Module and URL lines of the p11tool output above. When the p11-kit server command starts, it will print the address of the PKCS#11 unix domain socket and the process ID of the server.


For later use, set the variables output by the tool on your shell prompt (e.g., copy and paste them or call the above p11-kit server command line with eval $(p11-kit server ...)).

Forwarding and using the PKCS#11 Unix socket on the remote server

On the remote server, we will initially forward the previously generated PKCS#11 unix socket, and then access the smart card through it. To access the forwarded socket as if it were a smart card, a dedicated PKCS#11 module is provided as part of the p11-kit-server package.

Preparing the remote system for PKCS#11 socket forwarding

One important detail you should be aware of, is the file system location of the forwarded socket. By convention, the module utilizes the "user runtime directory", managed by systemd; the directory is created when a user logs in, and removed upon logout, so that the user doesn't need to manually clean up the socket file.

To locate your user runtime directory, do:

$ systemd-path user-runtime

The module looks for the socket file under a subdirectory (/run/user/1000/p11-kit in this example). To enable auto-creation of the directory, do the following.

$ systemctl --user enable p11-kit-client.service

Forwarding the PKCS#11 socket

We will use ssh to forward the local PKCS#11 unix socket to the remote server. Following the p11-kit-client convention, we will forward the socket to the remote user run-time path so that cleaning up on disconnect is not required. The remote location of the run-time path can be obtained as follows.

$ ssh [user]@[remotehost] systemd-path user-runtime

The number at the end of the path above is your user ID in that system (and thus will vary from user to user). You can now forward the Unix domain socket with the -R option of the ssh command, after replacing the example path with the actual run-time path.

$ ssh -R /run/user/[userID]/p11-kit/pkcs11:${P11_KIT_SERVER_ADDRESS#*=} [user]@[remotehost]

After successfully logging in to the remote host, you can use the forwarded smartcard as if it were directly connected to the server using the Note that if any error occurs during the forwarding setup, you will see something like this on your terminal:

Warning: remote port forwarding failed for listen path /run/user/...

Using the forwarded PKCS#11 socket

Let's first make sure the smart card works on the remote system, by listing it:

$ ls -l /run/user/1000/p11-kit/pkcs11

$ p11tool --provider /usr/lib64/pkcs11/ --list-tokens
Token 0:
        URL: pkcs11:model=PKCS%2315%20emulated;;serial=DENK0000000;token=UserPIN%20%28Daiki%27s%20token%29
        Label: UserPIN (Daiki's token)
        Type: Hardware token
        Model: PKCS#15 emulated
        Serial: DENK0000000
        Module: (null)

We can similarly generate, copy objects or test certificates to the card using the same command. Any applications which support PKCS#11 can perform cryptographic operations through the client module.

Registering the client module for use with OpenSSL and GnuTLS apps

To utilize the p11-kit-client module with OpenSSL (via engine_pkcs11 provided by the libp11 package) and GnuTLS applications, you have to register it in p11-kit. To do it for the current user, use the following commands:

$ mkdir .config/pkcs11/modules/
$ echo "module: /usr/lib64/pkcs11/" >.config/pkcs11/modules/p11-kit-client.module

Once this is done both OpenSSL and GnuTLS applications should work, for example:

$ URL="pkcs11:model=PKCS%2315%20emulated;;serial=DENK0000000;token=UserPIN%20%28Daiki%27s%20token%29"

# Generate a key using gnutls’ p11tool
$ p11tool --generate-ecc --login --label test-key "$URL"

# generate a certificate request with the previous key using openssl
$ openssl req -engine pkcs11 -new -key "$URL;;object=test-key;type=private;pin-value=XXXX" \
         -keyform engine -out req.pem -text -subj "/CN=Test user"

Note that the token URL remains the same in the forwarded system as in the original one.

Using the client module with OpenSSH

To re-use the already forwarded smartcard for authentication with another remote host, you can run ssh and provide the -I option with For example:

$ ssh -I /usr/lib64/pkcs11/ [user]@[anotherhost]

Using the client module with NSS applications

To register the forwarded smartcard in NSS applications, you can set it up with the modutil command, as follows.

$ sudo modutil -dbdir /etc/pki/nssdb -add p11-kit-client -libfile /usr/lib64/pkcs11/

$ modutil -dbdir /etc/pki/nssdb -list
  3. p11-kit-client
    library name: /usr/lib64/pkcs11/
       uri: pkcs11:library-manufacturer=OpenSC%20Project;library-description=OpenSC%20smartcard%20framework;library-version=0.17
     slots: 1 slot attached
    status: loaded

     slot: Nitrokey Nitrokey HSM (010000000000000000000000) 00 00
    token: UserPIN (Daiki's token)
      uri: pkcs11:token=UserPIN%20(Daiki's%20token);;serial=DENK0000000;model=PKCS%2315%20emulated
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