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If you use automatic login in Ubuntu or other Linux distributions, you might have come across a pop-up message of this sort:
Enter password to unlock your login keyring
The login keyring did not get unlocked when you logged into your computer.
It keeps on popping up several times before disappearing if you keep on clicking cancel. You may wonder why do you keep seeing this keyring message all the time?
Let me tell you something. It’s not an error. It’s a security feature.
Surprised? Let me explain the keyring concept in Linux.
What is keyring in Linux and why is it used?
Why do you use a keyring (also called keychain) in the real life? You use it to keep one or more keys grouped together so that they are easy to find and carry.
It’s the same concept in Linux. The keyring feature allows your system to group various passwords together and keep it one place.
Most desktop environments like GNOME, KDE, Xfce etc use an implementation of gnome-keyring to provide this keyring feature in Linux.
This keyring keeps your ssh keys, GPG keys and keys from applications that use this feature, like Chromium browser. By default, the keyring is locked with a master password which is often the login password of the account.
Every user on your system has its own keyring with (usually) the same password as that of the user account itself. When you login to your system with your password, your keyring is unlocked automatically with your account’s password.
The problem comes when you switch to auto-login in Ubuntu. This means that you login to the system without entering the password. In such case, your keyring is not unlocked automatically.
Keyring is a security feature
Remember I told you that the keyring was a security feature? Now imagine that on your Linux desktop, you are using auto-login. Anyone with access to your desktop can enter the system without password but you have no issues with that perhaps because you use it to browse internet only.
But if you use a browser like Chromium or Google Chrome in Ubuntu, and use it to save your login-password for various websites, you have an issue on your hand. Anyone can use the browser and login to the websites for which you have saved password in your browser. That’s risky, isn’t it?
This is why when you try to use Chrome, it will ask you to unlock the keyring repeatedly. This ensures that only the person who knows the keyring’s password (i.e. the account password) can use the saved password in browser for logging in to their respective websites.
If you keep on cancelling the prompt for keyring unlock, it will eventually go away and let you use the browser. However, the saved password won’t be unlocked and you’ll see ‘sync paused’ in Chromium/Chrome browsers.
If this keyring always exited, why you never saw it?
That’s a valid question if you have never seen this keyring thing in your Linux system.
If you never used automatic login (or changed your account’s password), you might not even have realized that this feature exists.
This is because when you login to your system with your password, your keyring is unlocked automatically with your account’s password.
Ubuntu (and other distributions) asks for password for common admin tasks like modifying users, installing new software etc irrespective of whether you auto login or not. But for regular tasks like using a browser, it doesn’t ask for password because keyring is already unlocked.
When you switch to automatic login, you don’t enter the password for login anymore. This means that the keyring is not unlocked and hence when you try to use a browser which uses the keyring feature, it will ask to unlock the keyring.
You can easily manage the keyring and passwords
Where is this keyring located? At the core, it’s a daemon (a program that runs automatically in the background).
Don’t worry. You don’t have to ‘fight the daemon’ in the terminal. Most desktop environments come with a graphical application that interacts with this daemon. On KDE, there is KDE Wallet, on GNOME and others, it’s called Password and Keys (originally known as Seahorse).
You can use this GUI application to see what application use the keyring to manage/lock passwords.
As you can see, my system has the login keyring which is automatically created. There is also a keyrings for storing GPG and SSH keys. The Certificates is for keeping the certificates (like HTTPS certificates) issued by a certificate authority.
You can also use this application to manually store passwords for website. For example, I created a new password-protected keyring called ‘Test’ and stored a password in this keyring manually.
This is slightly better than keeping a list of passwords in a text file. At least in this case your passwords can be viewed only when you unlock the keyring with password.
One potential problem here is that if you format your system, the manually saved passwords are definitely lost. Normally, you make backup of personal files, not of all the user specific data such as keyring files.
There is way to handle that. The keyring data is usually stored in ~/.local/share/keyrings directory. You can see all the keyrings here but you cannot see its content directly. If you remove the password of the keyring (I’ll show the steps in later section of this article), you can read the content of the keyring like a regular text file. You can copy this unlocked keyring file entirely and import it in the Password and Keys application on some other Linux computer (running this application).
So, let me summarize what you have learned so far:
- Most Linux has this ‘keyring feature’ installed and activated by default
- Each user on a system has its own keyring
- The keyring is normally locked with the account’s password
- Keyring is unlocked automatically when you login with your password
- For auto-login, the keyring is not unlocked and hence you are asked to unlock it when you try to use an application that uses keyring
- Not all browsers or application use the keyring feature
- There is a GUI application installed to interact with keyring
- You can use the keyring to manually store passwords in encrypted format
- You can change the keyring password on your own
- You can export (by unlocking the keyring first) and import it on some other computer to get your manually saved passwords