Yubikeys are great for security, but their benefits decrease somewhat when you leave them in your computer unattended.1 I unfortunately have a habit of forgetting my key when I walk away from the computer. I also have login passwords that are way too long and easy to typo.

Thankfully, there’s a way to solve both of these problems: use a Yubikey to unlock your computer when you put it in and lock your computer when you remove it!

Prior art

The first example I remember seeing of this concept years ago was Predator, Windows software (with a delightfully retro website) that locks your computer when you remove a special USB drive. Similar examples for Linux include pamusb, which allows you to login using Linux’s PAM by inserting a specially-formatted USB stick.

Of course, nowadays most people use Yubikeys to accomplish this, and Yubico has convenient guides on how to accomplish this very task. However, I wanted to make it touchless – that is, I wanted to be able to plug in my Yubikey and instantly unlock my laptop, without clicking through logins or touching the Yubikey button. Upon removal, I wanted to instantly lock my computer.

Making it contactless2

There are some guides on how to do this online (unlock when you plug in, lock when you remove), but unfortunately most of them fall prey to the problem described in this article. A lot of them use udev to detect when the Yubikey is plugged in, but they don’t actually authenticate the key beyond checking its vendor ID, model ID, and sometimes serial number, which all can easily be faked.

To provide actual security, most official guides use either pam_u2f (which authenticates a Yubikey through the U2F protocol) or pam_yubico (which uses either online validation through YubiCloud or offline validation through a challenge-response protocol). The U2F method requires a tap on the Yubikey, while the challenge-response process can be done without user interaction, so I went with the latter. I set up traditional Yubikey authentication using this great guide from System76.

However, I still needed some way to test the challenge-response for success when I plugged in the key. Usually, pam_yubico is run when you login or unlock your computer (i.e. when pressing the enter key on the lockscreen). But I didn’t want any clicks, so I needed a way to run it without interaction.

Enter udev (again) and pamtester!

Here’s the udev rules I included:

kevin@you:~ » cat /etc/udev/rules.d/yubikey.rules
ACTION=="remove", ENV{DEVTYPE}=="usb_device", ENV{PRODUCT}=="1050/407*", RUN+="/usr/local/sbin/ykunlock.sh lock"
ACTION=="add", ENV{DEVTYPE}=="usb_device", ENV{ID_BUS}=="usb", ENV{PRODUCT}=="1050/407*", RUN+="/usr/local/sbin/ykunlock.sh unlock"

These rules effectively call a script when inserting and removing the key, so I can trigger any action from the script. Note that the script should not immediately unlock the computer, to avoid the security issues mentioned earlier.

To actually test the challenge-response from the Yubikey on inserting, I decided to use pamtester, a simple utility that pretends to trigger a PAM authentication from the command line. Since pam_yubico is installed, this will naturally test the challenge-response if a Yubikey is plugged in.

Here’s the final script:

#!/bin/bash
exec 1> >(logger -s -t "$(basename "$0")") 2>&1
echo "RUN"
if [ "$1" = "lock" ]; then
        pkill -USR1 swayidle
else
        # unlock
        if echo "" | pamtester login kevin authenticate; then
                # PAM login successful
                # kill locker
                kill -KILL $(pgrep swaylock)
                ps aux | grep swaylock
                # turn on displays
                SWAYSOCK=$(ls /run/user/1000/sway-ipc.*.sock) swaymsg "output * dpms on"
        fi
fi
exit 0
  • On lock, it immediately locks my desktop (by sending a SIGUSR1 to swayidle, the program that manages locking on the Sway window manager)
  • On unlock, it first sees if it can authenticate using pamtester without interaction (when no Yubikey is inserted or if the key is invalid, pamtester asks for a password). If it can, it kills the lockscreen and turns on all displays using Sway WM protocols.

The final result is amazingly convenient, and has successfully made me remember to pull out my Yubikey when leaving my computer unattended more than once3! Mission success.


  1. I’ve significantly downgraded this statement in severity after some excellent comments on Hacker News have pointed out that (1) stealing a Yubikey is incredibly unlikely unless you’re a person of interest; (2) even if you have the Yubikey, you still can’t directly extract e.g. a private key; and (3) a Yubikey protects against SSH/GPG fraud because it can require a PIN and lock out over time. Case in point, Yubikeys are good. I’d argue that it’s still not good to have your key stolen (e.g. perhaps if you’re targeted by a government/industrial espionage, or the malicious significant other attack, where they know your password and can steal your key for 2FA if unattended), but I see that it’s not as much of a risk as I originally thought. ↩︎

  2. You might call it Yubikey: Coronavirus Edition. ↩︎

  3. Yes, yes, I know there’s not too much of a danger because we’re all stuck at home right now. But who knows – maybe this will be helpful when we eventually get back on campus. ↩︎