Table of contents

Handle encrypted hieradata

Hiera is a key/value lookup tool that we use for storing Puppet configuration data. We use Hiera eYAML GPG to encrypt sensitive Hiera data.

Hiera eYAML GPG acts as a backend to Hiera; like a plugin. It enables us to encrypt Hiera data using GPG keys. In our case, we encrypt the data using the GPG keys of all security-cleared members of 2nd line.

Hiera eYAML GPG works by encrypting only the Hiera values rather than encrypting a whole file. It also encrypts each Hiera value individually, which makes for meaningful output from git-diff(1) such that it’s possible to identify exactly which Hiera key has changed in any given Git commit.

What Hiera data do we encrypt?

Currently, we only encrypt the data in the credentials files found in the hieradata/ directories of the alphagov/govuk-puppet and alphagov/govuk-secrets repositories. These files contain secrets such as passwords and private keys.

Only secrets for the production, staging and integration environments are actually sensitive. The vagrant_credentials.yml file, used with the Vagrant test VMs, should not contain any sensitive data but can be used to test Hiera eYAML GPG using dummy data.

There is currently no support for encrypted Hiera data using the development VM; this is intentional for reasons of simplicity.

Why do we encrypt Hiera data?

Before encrypted Hiera data was supported we used (and continue to use) a separate repository, alphagov/govuk-secrets, to store secrets and sensitive data in Hiera. Whereas the alphagov/govuk-puppet repository is open to all developers, access to the alphagov/govuk-secrets repository is restricted to a small number of staff.

Upon deploying Puppet, the alphagov/govuk-secrets repository is copied over the files in the alphagov/govuk-puppet repository such that both sets of files are read by Puppet.

This patten enables us to restrict access to sensitive credentials while still allowing developers to access the main Puppet repository.

There are some limitations and disadvantages of this pattern, however:

  • Sensitive data would be unencrypted on disk. Despite everyone having access to the alphagov/govuk-secrets repository using full disk encryption, secrets would be readable if a laptop was infected by malware or if a secret was accidentally committed to a public repository or copied accidentally to an unencrypted disk.
  • There was the possibility of secrets being sent over plaintext email as part of GitHub notifications if comments were made on specific lines of a pull request that included changes to sensitive data.
  • A vulnerability in GitHub or an administrative error when setting access permissions could expose secrets.

By encrypting Hiera data using GPG, we are able to strictly define who has access to these secrets (using GPG keys) and have assurances that should the encrypted data be leaked or exposed, we have the additional protection of GPG encryption which mitigates some of the scenarios outlined above and gives us additional time to change credentials in case of accidental exposure.

Note that there are no plans currently to merge the alphagov/govuk-puppet and alphagov/govuk-secrets repositories; having them separate still provides additional protection against accidental exposure.

Common tasks for handling encrypted Hiera data

Hiera eYAML provides a command-line tool for viewing and editing encrypted data.

There is a Rakefile in the puppet/ directory of the alphagov/govuk-secrets repository which wraps the Hiera eYAML tool and helps to ensure that sensitive data is only accessible to the intended recipients.

You must use the rake tasks to modify encrypted Hiera data.


  1. Pull the latest changes from the alphagov/govuk-secrets repo

  2. Next, run bundler(1) to install dependencies:

    cd puppet/
    bundle install
  3. You’ll need to create a GPG key before you can access or modify encrypted Hiera data.

  4. You will need to ask someone who already has access to the credential file to add your GPG fingerprint to the relevant recipient file and re-encrypt the credential file so that you can access it.

    You can find your GPG fingerprint by running:

    gpg --fingerprint

    To re-encrypt the credentials, ask the person with access to run:

    bundle exec rake eyaml:recrypt[integration]

    …where integration is the name of the environment whose credentials you wish to access.

Once complete, you should run git pull to obtain the re-encrypted copy.

You should now be able to use the rake(1) tasks below to access and modify encrypted Hiera data.


If you use ZSH as your local shell, you will need to either enclose the rake(1) command in single quotes or set the noglob option.

Encrypting a Hiera key

  1. Where integration is the name of the environment whose credentials you wish to edit, run:

    bundle exec rake eyaml:edit[integration]

    You will be asked for your GPG passphrase. If you encounter an error, please see the troubleshooting section below.

    The above command will open a text editor (as determined by the $EDITOR environment variable) showing the undecrypted Hiera data in YAML format.

    An unencrypted Hiera key and value might look like:

    password: 'thisisasecret'
  2. To encrypt the Hiera value, enclose it in square brackets prefixed with the string DEC::GPG and suffixed with a trailing exclamation mark (!).

    The above example would look as follows:

    password: DEC::GPG[thisisasecret]!

    Do not enclose it in single or double quotes as this will get interpreted as part of the secret.

Once you have finished, save the file and quit the editor. The changes you made will be encrypted by Hiera eYAML. Should you encounter an error, please see the troubleshooting section below.


When editing a Hiera key that has previously been encrypted, you will notice a number enclosed in parentheses after the word GPG; for example: DEC::GPG(1). You should not make any changes to the number as this is used by Hiera eYAML GPG to identify existing encrypted data.

Managing access to encrypted Hiera data

The list of people that have access to encrypted Hiera data in stored in ‘recipient’ file specific to each environment (.rcp extension).

The production and integration files are stored in the govuk-secrets repo. There is no separate staging file; the production file is used for both staging and production.

The .rcp file for Vagrant is stored in the puppet repo.

Each line in a recipient file corresponds to a GPG fingerprint and usually is identified by a comment after the hash (#) symbol denoting its owner. Each GPG key (and owner of that key) listed in the recipient file is able to decrypt data belonging to the environment that the recipient file pertains to.

What to do when someone leaves

Leavers should be removed from all recipient files (see above). This is achieved by deleting the line where the leaver’s name is referenced by a comment.

Therefore, to revoke a leaver’s access from future changes to credentials:

  1. Delete the leaver’s GPG fingerprint from each of the recipient files for integration, production and Vagrant. Note that there is no separate recipients file for staging.
  2. Commit your changes and raise a pull request for review.


Removing a GPG key from the recipient key and re-encrypting the credentials files does not mean that the leaver is no longer able to read the secrets it currently contains.

Anyone who has previously had access to a credentials file may have retained a copy of the data. They are still able to decrypt the current copy of the credentials file and have made unencrypted copies.

We must assume that, until the stored credentials are rotated and the credentials file is re-encrypted any secrets contained in the credentials file can still be read by anyone with a GPG key previously listed in the recipient list.

How to (re)generate GPG keys for an environment

If a new environment is added or the Puppet GPG key for an existing environment expires or is compromised, a new GPG key must be generated. This key allows Puppet to read encrypted Hiera data.

To ensure consistency, new GPG keys are generated using a template (example).

To generate a new key:

  1. Generate a random passphrase using a secure method (such as a password manager).
  2. Run bundle exec rake 'eyaml:gpg_create[integration]', where integration is the name of the environment to create the GPG key for, entering the passphrase when prompted.
  3. Depending on the version of gpg you are using, you may end up with either .gpg or .kbx files saved to the 2ndline password store in the alphagov/govuk-secrets repository, or in the gpg directory of the alphagov/govuk-puppet repository if you are generating a key for the 'vagrant’ environment.
  4. If you have .kbx files as a result of step 3, you’ll need to export the public and secret keys into .gpg files by running gpg --keyring pubring.kbx --export > pubring.gpg and gpg --keyring pubring.kbx --export-secret-key > secring.gpg. You’ll need to set GNUPGHOME to the path that contains the keyring file (for example, GNUPGHOME=~/govuk/govuk-secrets/pass/2ndline/hiera-eyaml-gpg/integration).
  5. Remove all files from the folder apart from pubring.gpg, secring.gpg and trustdb.gpg (usually S.gpg-agent, S.gpg-agent.browser, S.gpg-agent.extra and S.gpg-agent.ssh).
  6. Add the passphrase you used when creating the new key to the 2nd line password store by running PASSWORD_STORE_DIR=~/govuk/govuk-secrets/pass/2ndline PASSWORD_STORE_GPG_OPTS="--trust-model always" pass insert hiera-eyaml-gpg/integration-gpg-key-passphrase. Note that PASSWORD_STORE_GPG_OPTS is required here other GPG will refuse to encrypt the data since the new GPG key isn’t trusted by default.
  7. Change the relevant recipients file to remove the fingerprint of the old key and add the new fingerprint (recipients file for integration).
  8. Run bundle exec rake eyaml:recrypt[integration] to recrypt the encrypted hieradata with the new GPG key.
  9. Open a pull request with all the changes so far and get it approved and merged.
  10. Now, configure the Puppet Master in the relevant environment using the instructions in the next section.


If you’re generating a new key because the old one has been compromised, or if it has not yet expired, you should revoke the old key to prevent it being used.

Configuring the Puppet Master

The GPG key, stored in the 2ndline password store in the alphagov/govuk-secrets repository, must be installed on the Puppet Master so that encrypted Hiera data is available to Puppet:

  1. Remove the passphrase from the secret key, where 6DB296C0 is the ID or fingerprint of the new key (the Puppet Master requires a secret key without a passphrase):

      $ gpg --edit-key 6DB296C0
      gpg> passwd
      Enter passphrase: <enter the passphrase>
      Enter the new passphrase for this secret key.
      Enter passphrase: <press enter>
      Repeat passphrase: <press enter>
      gpg> save
      $ gpg --export-secret-key 6DB296C0 > secring.gpg
  2. SSH to the Puppet Master (for example,

  3. Change to the root user (sudo su -).

  4. Go to /etc/puppet/gpg.

  5. Create a new folder (for example, old) and move all files currently in the gpg folder into there as a backup.

  6. Copy the new files to the Puppet Master using rsync from your local machine: rsync --rsync-path="sudo rsync" ~/govuk/govuk-secrets/pass/2ndline/hiera-eyaml-gpg/integration/*

  7. Make sure the new files have the correct permissions: sudo chown -R puppet: /etc/puppet/gpg and sudo chmod -R 0700 /etc/puppet/gpg.

  8. Deploy Puppet to pick up the changes.

  9. Send the new key to a key server, so that other people re-encrypting the Hiera data can obtain it easily: gpg --send-keys 6DB296C0.


Make sure not to copy the Production GPG key to the Integration environment.


In the time between adding the new keys to the Puppet Master, deploying puppet, and it running on all machines in the relevant environment, you will see alerts in Icinga about puppet not being able to read config files. These alerts will go away as each machine runs puppet.


Encryption fails when running the Rake task

If the rake task to edit the encrypted credentials fails, with errors such as:

$ bundle exec rake eyaml:edit[integration]
[gpg] !!! Warning: General exception decrypting GPG file
[hiera-eyaml-core] !!! Bad file descriptor

Check that you’re using GPG version 2 or above. Hiera eYAML GPG appears to fail when using GPG version 1 with a large number of credentials.

If you see this error:

General error

Check if any of the GPG keys in the recipients list have expired.

If you see this error:

[hiera-eyaml-core] !!! Bad passphrase

Check that your GPG configuration is sane. Try encrypting and decrypting some dummy text using the gpg command:

echo 'foo' | gpg --armor --encrypt --recipient | gpg --decrypt

The gpg command above might give a more useful error message than the gpgme library, which Hiera eYAML GPG uses.

If you see this error:

[hiera-eyaml-core] !!! Decryption failed

Make sure that another PR re-encrypting the credentials was not merged before your one. If this is the case, the credentials will need to be re-encrypted again, making sure that your GPG key fingerprint is in the relevant recipient files.

Puppet fails because my it can’t find a usable GPG key

When Puppet runs, you may see the following error:

Hiera eYAML GPG encryption backend is not working; check that Puppet has a valid GPG key

This error can occur for the following reasons:

  • Puppet cannot find a GPG keyring in /etc/puppet/gpg. Note that this should only occur in development or test VMs or on the Puppet Master. If this is a non-Vagrant environment (e.g. Production), check that you have copied the GPG keys from the 2ndline pass store to /etc/puppet/gpg - see configuring the Puppet Master. Servers running puppet-agent do not require a GPG key as they rely on the Puppet Master to provide and, when necessary, decrypt Hiera data.
  • The GPG key has expired; it should be replaced with a new key - see how to (re)generate GPG keys for an environment.
  • The Hiera YAML files contain encrypted data for which the GPG keys in /etc/puppet/gpg is not listed as a recipient. Check the GPG recipient files and compare the fingerprint there to the fingerprint of the GPG keyring in /etc/puppet/gpg. You can find the fingerprint by executing the following command on the server:

    GNUPGHOME=/etc/puppet/gpg gpg --fingerprint
  • The shared folder configured in the Vagrantfile for Vagrant boxes is not being mounted correctly at /etc/puppet/gpg. Check the output of mount(1) and try reloading the machine using:

    vagrant reload

    You should also check that the version of VirtualBox guest additions you are using is current and compatible with the VirtualBox version you are using.

Puppet fails because it can’t find gpgme

The error occurs because the Ruby load path is missing a directory containing a shared object file belonging to the gpgme Ruby gem.

To fix this, you should destroy and re-provision your VM. For example, for the development VM:

vagrant destroy
vagrant up

Alternatively, you can add the $LOAD_PATH to /usr/bin/puppet as shown in this commit.

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