collaborative password utility

Author:Kale and Ken Kundert <abraxas@nurdletech.com>
Manual section:1


abraxas [options] [account]


-P, --password Output the password (default if nothing else is specified).
-N, --username Output the username.
-Q <N>, --question <N>
 Output the answer to security question N.
-A, --account-number
 Output the account number.
-E, --email Output the email associated with this account.
-U, --url Output the website address.
-R, --remarks Output remarks.
-i, --info Output all account information except the secrets (the password and the answers to the security questions).
-a, --all Same as –info except also output the password.
-q, --quiet Disable all non-essential output.
-c, --clipboard
 Write output to clipboard rather than stdout.
-t, --autotype Mimic a keyboard to send output to the active window rather than stdout. In this case any command line arguments that specify what to output are ignored and the autotype entry directs what is to be output.
-f <str>, --find <str>
 List any account that contains the given string in its ID.
-s <str>, --search <str>
 List any account that contains the given string in username, account, email, url, remarks, or its ID.
-S, --stateless
 Do not use master password or accounts file.
-T <template>, --template <template>
 Template to use if account is not found.
-b, --default-browser
 Open account in the default browser.
-B <browser>, --browser <browser>
 Open account in the specified browser.
-n, --notify Output messages to notifier.
-l, --list List available master passwords and templates (only pure templates are listed, not accounts, even though accounts can be used as templates)
-w <secs>, --wait <secs>
 Wait this log before clearing the secret (use 0 to disable clearing).
--archive Archive all the secrets to ~/.config/abraxas/archive.gpg.
--changed Identify all the secrets that have changed since last archived.
-I <GPG-ID>, --init <GPG-ID>
 Initialize the master password and accounts files in ~/.config/abraxas (but only if they do not already exist).
-h, --help Show a brief summary of available command line options.


A log file is created in ~/.config/abraxas/log (the location of this file can be specified in the log_file variable in the accounts file).


Abraxas is password utility that can store or generate your passwords and produce them from the command line. It can also be configured to autotype your username and password into the current window so that you can log in with a simple keystroke.

Abraxas is capable of generating two types of passwords, character based (pass words) or word based (pass phrases). Pass phrases are generally preferred if you have a choice, but many websites will not take them. The benefit of pass phrases is that they are relatively easy to remember and type, and they are very secure. The pass phrases generated by Abraxas generally consist of four words, each word is drawn from a dictionary of 10,000 words. Thus, even if a bad guy knew that four lower case words were being used for your pass phrase, there are still 10,000,000,000,000,000 possible combinations for him to try (this represents a minimum entropy of 53 bits). Using six words results in 80 bits of entropy, which meets the threshold recommended by NIST for the most secure pass phrases. For more on this, see ‘How Much Entropy is Enough’ below.

For another perspective on the attractiveness of pass phrases, see http://xkcd.com/936/.

Unlike password vaults, Abraxas produces a highly unpredictable password from a master password and the name of the account for which the password is to be used. The process is completely repeatable. If you give the same master password and account name, you will get the same password. As such, the passwords do not have to be saved; instead they are regenerated on the fly.

As a password generator, Abraxas provides three important advantages over conventional password vaults. First, it allows groups of people to share access to accounts without having to securely share each password. Instead, one member of the group creates a master password that is securely shared with the group once. From then on any member of the group can create a new account, share the name of the account, and all members will know the password needed to access the account. The second advantage is that it opens up the possibility of using high-quality passwords for stealth accounts, which are accounts where you remember the name of the account but do not store any information about even the existence of the account on your computer. With Abraxas, you only need to remember the name of the account and it will regenerate the password for you. This is perfect for your TrueCrypt hidden volume password. Finally, by securely storing a small amount of information, perhaps on a piece of paper in your safe-deposit box, you can often recover most if not all of your passwords even if you somehow lose your accounts file. You can even recover passwords that were created after you created your backup. This is because Abraxas combines the master password with some easily reconstructed information, such as the account name, to create the password. If you save the master password, the rest should be recoverable.

To use it, one creates a file that contains information about each of his or her non-stealth accounts. Among that information would be information that controls how the passwords are generated. This file is generally not encrypted, though you can encrypt it if you like). Another file is created that contains one or more master passwords. This file is always GPG encrypted.

The intent is for these files to not include the passwords for your accounts. Rather, the passwords are regenerated when needed from the account information and from the master password. This makes it easy to share passwords with others without having to pass the passwords back and forth. It is only necessary to create a shared master password in advance. Then new passwords can be created on the fly by either party.

Basic Use

To generate a password for an account that exists in your accounts file, you would use:

abraxas <account>

where <account> is the name of your account. For example, to get your gmail password you might use:

$ abraxas gmail
PASSWORD: preview secretary eschew cobra

The $ represents the shell prompt, you do not type it.

The password generator is also capable of generating answers to the security questions that are the bane of most websites these days. Simply add the questions to your accounts file and the password generator will produce an unpredictable yet consistent and easily communicated response for each question. For example:

$ abraxas -q0 gmail
name of elementary school: balaclava essence guildhall persimmon

There is a very good reason not to actually provide your personal information as a response to these questions. Often it is friends and family members that are the most likely to attempt to surreptitiously access your account. As with most crime, it comes down to opportunity and motive. The opportunity comes from the fact that they know you and so are more likely to know the information, like the answers to these security questions, that allows them access to your account. The motive generally comes eventually. It is hard to live one’s life without angering a friend or family member at some point, and then they may feel justified in helping themselves to your accounts.

Abraxas outputs account information upon request. It is a command line program, so you just specify the right command line options to have it print out the username, account number, url, etc.:

$ abraxas -i gmail
USERNAME: derrickAsh
EMAIL: derrick.ash@yahoo.com
URL: https://accounts.google.com

The output can be produced in three different ways.

The first is that it is simply displayed on standard output. It tries to keep the secret information (such as the password and answers to the security questions) secure by displaying it for a minute and then erasing it. The program continues to run while the password is displayed. To clear the password early, just kill the program by typing Ctrl-C.

The second way is to send it to the clipboard. For security reasons, the clipboard is cleared after a minute.

Finally, the password generator can output the information by mimicking the keyboard and ‘typing’ it to active window. This is referred to as ‘autotype’.

Account Discovery

If no account is specified, Abraxas examines the window title and from it tries to determine which account to use. In its most simple form window titles can be specified in the accounts, and the account with the matching title is used. Multiple title strings can be associated with each account, and those strings support globbing. In addition, Abraxas can sometimes recognize components of the window title, components such as the URL, the protocol, etc., and it can compare those component to fields in the account to determine which account to use. In particular, Abraxas comes with the ability to recognize the title components created by ‘Hostname in Titlebar’, an add-on to Firefox that puts the URL and protocol in the title bar (with Chrome, use ‘Url in Title’).

If the title matches multiple accounts, a dialog box opens with the list of each of those accounts. Use the up or k and down or j keys to navigate to the account you want and select it with Enter or Return. You can cancel using Esc.

The combination of autotype and account discovery is very powerful if you configure your window manager to run Abraxas because it makes it possible to login to websites and such with a single keystroke.

Autotype can sometimes be a bit problematic. Some programs can occasionally stubbornly ignore particular autotyped characters, particularly $ and newline. This can occur with Firefox, whereas in those cases it did not occur with Chrome. If this affects you, you might want to simply remove $ from your character set for your passwords (newline is not as problematic as it generally occurs last, and so can be added by hand).


The accounts file can be a simple ASCII file that contains somewhat sensitive information. From this file one could infer the existence of an account and would have some identifying information such as the username and account number, but the passwords themselves are not contained in the file, only the parameters of the passwords (how many characters, the alphabet used, etc). Because the file is somewhat sensitive, it is recommended that it should be readable only by the user. If you are uncomfortable with this level of protection, you can further protect the accounts file by encrypting it. To do so, run:

$ cd ~/.config/abraxas
$ gpg --armor --encrypt --recipient <your-gpg-id> accounts
$ shred -u accounts

In some cases the mere existence of this file, even though encrypted, may be problematic. Once discovered, authorities may compel you hand over the decryption keys, which would expose the existence of all of your accounts and provide access to each of them.

It is possible to generate passwords for accounts that are not described in the accounts file. As such, these ‘stealth’ accounts are more secure since no information is retained that refers to these accounts; they provide plausible deniability. To generate a password or pass phrase for such an account you would simply give the name of the account on the command line. For example:

$ abraxas my-secret-account
warning: account 'my-secret-account' not found.
PASSWORD: apologist imprint epigram return

You would need to remember the name of the account precisely. If you give even a slightly different account name you will get a different password. In this case Abraxas generates a password with the default settings, which is actually a 4 word pass phrase, which most websites reject. You can indicate that Abraxas should generate an actual password by giving the name of a template. A template is simply a named collection of attributes that specify how to generate the password. You may configure as many templates as you wish. By default, Abraxas comes with eight templates:

A sequence of random English words. The default is to use 4 words, which provides 53 bits of entropy.
A sequence of random letters (upper and lower case), digits and symbols. The default is to use 12 characters, which provides 79 bits of entropy.
A sequence of random digits. The default is to use 4 digits, which provides 13 bits of entropy. This is typically used for PIN numbers.
A sequence of random digits. The default is to use 8 digits, which provides 26 bits of entropy. This is also used for PIN numbers, but it provides better security.
A single random word. Chosen from a list of 10,000 words, this is equivalent to a 4 digit PIN, but is easier to remember. It provides 13 bits of entropy.
A sequence of easily distinguishable random letters. The letters may be both upper and lower case, but will not include any letters that are easily confused with other letters or digits (Il1O0). Typically used for web passwords. The default is to use 12 characters, which provides 78 bits of entropy.
A sequence of random English words. The default is to use 8 words, which provides 106 bits of entropy.
A sequence of random letters (upper and lower case), digits and symbols. The default is to use 64 characters, which provides 420 bits of entropy.

You can generate a pass word (a collection of characters) instead of a pass phrase (a collection of words) for a stealth account with:

$ abraxas -T =anum my-secret-account
warning: account 'my-secret-account' not found.

It is possible to take this one step further. Specifying the -S or --stateless command line option instructs Abraxas to avoid using any saved information when generating the password. In this situation, you must give both the account name (on the command line) and the master password. As long as you use a master password or pass phrase that is memorable for you but difficult for everyone else to guess, you should be reasonably safe from someone figuring out your password even if they have full access to your private GPG keys and your Abraxas files. For example:

$ abraxas --stateless my-secret-account
Provide master password for account 'my-secret-account'.
Password: my-secret-master-passphrase
PASSWORD: toehold physical illusion washroom

When running in stateless mode you do not have access to any templates you may have created in your accounts file because that file is ignored, but you have access to the predefined templates described above:

$ abraxas -S -T =anum my-secret-account
Provide master password for account 'my-secret-account'.
Password: my-secret-master-passphrase

GPG Security

Abraxas inherits the security policies of GPG. It is important to recognize that any weakness in your GPG security policy could result in your passwords being exposed. For example, if you enter your GPG pass phrase into your agent and it is retained while you walk away from your computer, then someone could use this program to access all of your passwords (with access to your accounts file, they would have everything they needed to know to break into each of your accounts). Thus, it is important to both carefully consider your use of the GPG agent and it’s password retention time. It is also important that you dutifully use screen locking when you walk away from your computer.


There are features in Abraxas that could allow you to inadvertently and unknowingly change the passwords that are generated for an account. For example, changing the master password would change the passwords for all accounts that linked to that master password. Similarly, changing the definition of a template would change the passwords for all accounts that employ that template. To avoid this, Abraxas allows you to quickly tell whether the passwords for any known account has changed. To use this feature, you must first archive your secrets.

You generate an archive of the secrets for all of the known accounts with:

abraxas --archive

The resulting archive is encrypted and saved in your settings directory (~/.config/abraxas/archive.gpg). In addition, you can check your current list of secrets against those in the archive with:

abraxas --changed

It is a good idea to do this when you have change your master password or accounts files and when you have update your version of Abraxas. Doing so will alert you to any unexpected changes. It is also recommended that you always confirm you only see the changes you expect before updating the archive.

How it Works

A secret such as a password or the answer to a security question starts out as the simple stringing together of a few things: the account name, the version, and the master password. For security questions, the question itself is added as well. This combined string is then hashed into a very long number. Even the smallest change in any of the components used to create it results in a very different number. The number is then mapped into pass phrases or passwords with your choice of words or characters. As long the master password is kept secure, this approach is very safe. Even knowing the algorithm and having access to the source code of the Abraxas program would not allow someone to predict your passwords.

Getting Started

Before using Abraxas you must have a GPG identity (a public/private key pair tagged to an email account). In addition, it is recommended that you run gpg-agent (add ‘gpg-agent’ alone on a line into your ~/.gnupg/gpg.conf file and then start the agent). Then you must create your accounts and master password file. To do so, run:

$ abraxas -I <gpg-id>

For example, if your GPG identity is linked to derrickAsh@gmail.com, then use:

$ abraxas -I derrickAsh@gmail.com

This creates two files if they do not already exist, ~/.config/abraxas/master.gpg and ~/.config/abraxas/accounts. Of the two, the master.gpg file is encrypted. If you would like the accounts file to be encrypted as well, encrypt it now using:

$ gpg --armor --encrypt --recipient <gpg-id> accounts

To make it easy to change an encrypted file, it is recommended that you download and install the gpg plugin for vim, which can be found at http://www.vim.org/scripts/script.php?script_id=3645. The file you will download is named gnupg.vim, simply move it into ~/.vim/plugin. Once you have done this, edit the file with vim or gvim. It should ask you for the GPG pass phrase associated with the GPG identity you specified. Once you have entered it you can edit the file.

Then if desired, you can edit the accounts file and add an account. See ‘man 5 abraxas’ for information about all of the fields that Abraxas uses. For example, to add your gmail and bank accounts, you would add something like the following to your accounts file:

accounts = {
    <skip over the templates at the start>
    "chase": {
        'template': "=chars",
        'username': "derrickash",
        'account': "6478-4789874",
        'email': "derrickAsh@gmail.com",
        'url': "https://chaseonline.chase.com",
    "gmail": {
        'template': "=words",
        'username': "derrickAsh",
        'email': "derrick.ash@yahoo.com",
        'url': "https://accounts.google.com",
        'security questions': [
            "name of elementary school",
        'window': [
            'Google Accounts*',
        'autotype': "{username}{tab}{password}{return}",

These fields are described in detail in abraxas(5).

How Much Entropy is Enough

A 4 word Abraxas password provides 53 bits of entropy, which seems like a lot, but NIST is recommending 80 bits for your most secure passwords. So, how much is actually required. It is worth exploring this question. Entropy is a measure of how hard the password is to guess. Specifically, it is the base two logarithm of the likelihood of guessing the password in a single guess. Every increase by one in the entropy represents a doubling in the difficulty of guessing your password. The actual entropy is hard to pin down, so generally we talk about the minimum entropy, which is the likelihood of an adversary guessing the password if he or she knows everything about the scheme used to generate the password but does not know the password itself. So in this case the minimum entropy is the likelihood of guessing the password if it is known that we are using 4 space separated words as our pass phrase. This is very easy to compute. There are roughly 10,000 words in our dictionary, so if there was only one word in our pass phrase, the chance of guessing it would be one in 10,000 or 13 bits of entropy. If we used a two word pass phrase the chance of guessing it in a single guess is one in 10,000*10,000 or one in 100,000,000 or 26 bits of entropy.

The probability of guessing our pass phrase in one guess is not our primary concern. Really what we need to worry about is given a determined attack, how long would it take to guess the password. To calculate that, we need to know how fast our adversary could try guesses. If they are trying guesses by typing them in by hand, their rate is so low, say one every 10 seconds, that even a one word pass phrase may be enough to deter them. Alternatively, they may have a script that automatically tries pass phrases through a login interface. Again, generally the rate is relatively slow. Perhaps at most the can get is 1000 tries per second. In this case they would be able to guess a one word pass phrase in 10 seconds and a two word pass phrase in a day, but a 4 word pass phrase would require 300,000 years to guess in this way.

The next important thing to think about is how your password is stored by the machine or service you are logging into. The worst case situation is if they save the passwords in plain text. In this case if someone were able to break in to the machine or service, they could steal the passwords. Saving passwords in plain text is an extremely poor practice that was surprisingly common, but is becoming less common as companies start to realize their liability when their password files get stolen. Instead, they are moving to saving passwords as hashes. A hash is a transformation that is very difficult to reverse, meaning that if you have the password it is easy to compute its hash, but given the hash it is extremely difficult to compute the original password. Thus, they save the hashes (the transformed passwords) rather than the passwords. When you log in and provide your password, it is transformed with the hash and the result is compared against the saved hash. If they are the same, you are allowed in. In that way, your password is no longer available to thieves that break in. However, they can still steal the file of hashed passwords, which is not as good as getting the plain text passwords, but it is still valuable because it allows thieves to greatly increase the rate that they can try passwords. If a poor hash was used to hash the passwords, then passwords can be tried at a very high rate. For example, it was recently reported that password crackers were able to try 8 billion passwords per second when passwords were hashed with the MD5 algorithm. This would allow a 4 word pass phrase to be broken in 14 days, whereas a 6 word password would still require 4,000,000 years to break. The rate for the more computational intensive sha512 hash was only 2,000 passwords per second. In this case, a 4 word pass phrase would require 160,000 years to break.

In most cases you have no control over how your passwords are stored on the machines or services that you log into. Your best defense against the notoriously poor security practices of most sites is to always use a unique password for sites where you are not in control of the secrets. For example, you might consider using the same pass phrase for you login password and the pass phrase for an ssh key on a machine that you administer, but never use the same password for two different websites unless you do not care if the content of those sites become public.

So, if we return to the question of how much entropy is enough, you can say that for important passwords where you are in control of the password database and it is extremely unlikely to get stolen, then four randomly chosen words from a reasonably large dictionary is plenty (for Abraxas this is 53 bits of entropy). If what the pass phrase is trying to protect is very valuable and you do not control the password database (ex., your brokerage account) you might want to follow the NIST recommendation and use 6 words to get 80 bits of entropy. If you are typing passwords on your work machine, many of which employ keyloggers to record your every keystroke, then no amount of entropy will protect you from anyone that has or gains access to the output of the keylogger. In this case, you should consider things like one-time passwords or two-factor authentication. Or better yet, only access sensitive accounts from your home machine and not from any machine that you do not control.


abraxas(3), abraxas(5)