This is a small tutorial to get you started on using S/MIME with gnus, i.e. signing mails with your private key and encrypting mail with some other person’s certificate.

Note that the bulk of this page is based on S/MIME with openssl, which requires that you manage certificates yourself. A superior approach based on EasyPG with gpgsm (part of GnuPG-2) is explained towards the end. See also ExtendSMIME.

Basic setup

First, you need your own X.509 certificate together with your private key in PEM format. If you exported your certificate from Firefox, it will be in a password protected p12 file. To export your certificate to a PEM file, use

openssl pkcs12 -in myCert.p12 -clcerts  > myCertAndKey.pem

You will have to enter the password for decrypting the input file and a new password which will be used to encrypt your private key in the PEM file. If you don’t want to encrypt your private key, use ‘-nodes’ (highly discouraged!).

If you have your private key and your certificate in different files (e.g. when not exported from Firefox) your openssl-call will look something like this:

cat secureprivate.key public_cert.pem | openssl pkcs12 -export -out myCertAndKey.pem -name "Your Certificate Name"

Usually, there will be intermediate certificates between your personal certificate and the trusted root certificate in the certificate chain. These intermediate certificates should be sent in signed mails along with your personal certificate, so that the recipient will only need the root certificate to verify your signature. Therefore, put all intermediate certificates in another PEM file in the same directory. If they are in the same p12 file as your personal certificate, you can export them by using

openssl pkcs12 -in myCert.p12 -cacerts -nokeys  > certChain.pem

This file may also contain the root certificate; you can delete it from the PEM file to reduce the size of your signed mails.

Now you should get all root certificates you want to trust in PEM format and put them in another directory, e.g. ~/CAcerts. Create a link to each root certificate, named with the corresponding hash value

ln -s root-CA.pem `openssl x509 -noout -hash -in root-CA.pem`.0

Configuring Gnus


M-x customize-group RET smime RET

to configure the S/MIME section in Gnus. Under Smime Keys, enter your mail address and the file name of your private key. Under Additional certificate files, enter the filename which contains the intermediate certificates (if any).

Under Smime Ca Directory, enter the directory containing the trusted root certificates. With Smime Certificate Directory, you can specify a directory containing other people’s certificates (needed if you want to send them encrypted mail).

Alternatively, set the variables


accordingly in your .emacs or .gnus. You will also have to include

(setq mm-decrypt-option 'always)
(setq mm-verify-option 'always)
(setq gnus-buttonized-mime-types '("multipart/encrypted" "multipart/signed"))

to automatically verify and decrypt S/MIME message.

Signing mail

For testing your setup, start with writing a mail to yourself. Use “C-c C-m s s” to insert the MML secure tag for signing your mail using S/MIME and send your message. Gnus will ask you for your password - if your private key is not encrypted, just hit enter. The received mail should show up with a verified signature. If not, check if it contains all necessary intermediate certificates and that you have properly installed the root CA.

It is possible to sign your email automatically. Have this in your .emacs or .gnus:

(add-hook 'message-send-hook 'mml-secure-message-sign-smime)

As the prompt for a passphrase will become annoying quickly, make sure passwords are cached and the timeout is something other than 16 seconds:

(setq password-cache t) ; default is true, so no need to set this actually
(setq password-cache-expiry 86400); default is 16 seconds

There are some risk associated with caching a password as a core dump could leak your password unto the hard-disk.

Encrypting mail

For encryption, use “C-c C-m c s”. Gnus will then ask for the recipients certificate. If you want to make sure the message is encrypted before sending, use “C-u C-c RET P” for previewing your article.

Will this work for several recipients, too? I remember having some problems with that when fiddling with smime a good while back --StefanKamphausen
I’ve looked into smime.el and it internally supports multiple certificates for encryption, but it only asks for one. However, it seems you can use mml-secure-encrypt-smime for this - I’m a little confused how mml-sec exactly interacts with smime.el, but the following works for me: --DavidEngster

If you want to encrypt a mail for more than one recipient, use “C-c C-m C s”. You can then add more than certificate for encryption; each certificate can be fetched from DNS or from a local file. However, note that you have to do this for every part of the message (e.g. also for attachments).

Alternatively, you may want to try ExtendSMIME which allows to encrypt to multiple recipients.

Getting certificate information from the BBDB

Since I grew tired of manually specifying the certificate files for encryption, I thought the BBDB would be a good place to store certificate information for certain users. The following code takes all addresses in the ‘To’, ‘Cc’ and ‘From’ headers and gets the values of the corresponding field ‘certfile’ in the BBDB which specifies the certificate file of the user. Afterwards, you can manually add further certificate files if needed. Since it also includes the certificate from the user in the ‘From’ header, the messsage is automatically encrypted to yourself (if your own address is in the BBDB with a correct ‘certfile’ field, of course).

(defun DE-get-certificate-files-from-bbdb () 
  (let ((certfiles nil))
	(let ((names (remq nil (mapcar 'message-fetch-field '("To" "Cc" "From")))))
	  (mapc (function (lambda (arg)
			    (let ((rec (bbdb-search-simple nil (cdr arg))))
			      (when rec
				(let ((cert (bbdb-get-field rec 'certfile)))
				  (when (and (> (length cert) 0) (not (member cert certfiles)))
				    (push cert certfiles)(push 'certfile certfiles)))))))
	      (mail-extract-address-components (mapconcat 'identity names ",") t)))
	(if (y-or-n-p (concat (mapconcat 'file-name-nondirectory (remq 'certfile certfiles) ", ") ".  Add more certificates? "))
	    (nconc (mml-smime-encrypt-query) certfiles)

The function returns the certificate filenames in a form so that they can be processed by ‘mml-secure-part’. To use the function, just add it to ‘mml-encrypt-alist’:

(add-to-list 'mml-encrypt-alist '("smime" mml-smime-encrypt-buffer DE-get-certificate-files-from-bbdb))

Now you can use “C-c C-m C s” to encrypt the current part of the mail as described above, and the certificate file information will be taken from the BBDB.

This is tested with gnus 5.10.8. I don’t know if this still works with newer gnus versions. --DavidEngster

Automatically extracting certificates from signed mails

The following function extracts the personal certificate from a signed mail, saves it in the directory where you store your user certificates (smime-certificate-directory) and puts the filename into the ‘certfile’ field of the user’s BBDB entry (see previous paragraph for using this field when encrypting mails). The user must already have an entry in the BBDB, so you might have to add him first. The filename for the certificate is the name of the user in the BBDB (whitespaces are substituted with underscores).

I strongly suggest you make a backup of your .bbdb file before using this function, since I may have done something wrong.

(defun DE-snarf-smime-certificate ()
  (if (or (assoc "certfile" (bbdb-propnames))
	  (progn (when (y-or-n-p "Field 'certfile' does not exist in BBDB. Define it? ")
		    (append (bbdb-propnames) (list (list "certfile"))))
      (if (get-buffer gnus-article-buffer)
	    (set-buffer gnus-article-buffer)
	    (if (search-forward "S/MIME Signed Part:Ok" nil t)
		(let* ((data (mm-handle-multipart-ctl-parameter 
			      (get-text-property (point) 'gnus-data) 'gnus-details))
		       (address (progn (string-match "^Sender claimed to be: \\(.*\\)$" data)
				       (substring data (match-beginning 1) (match-end 1))))
		       (rec (bbdb-search-simple nil address)))
		  (if rec
		      (let* ((certfile (bbdb-get-field rec 'certfile))
			     (filename (bbdb-record-name rec))
			     (dowrite (or (zerop (length certfile)) 
					  (y-or-n-p "User already has a certfile entry. Overwrite? ")))
			     (begincert nil))
			(when dowrite
			  (string-match (concat "\\(emailAddress=\\|email:\\)" address) data)
			  (setq begincert (string-match "^-----BEGIN CERTIFICATE-----$" data (match-end 0)))
			  (if (and smime-certificate-directory
				   (file-directory-p smime-certificate-directory))
				(setq filename (concat (file-name-as-directory smime-certificate-directory) 
						       (mm-file-name-replace-whitespace filename) ".pem"))
				(when (or (not (file-exists-p filename))
					  (y-or-n-p (concat "Filename " filename " already exists. Overwrite? "))) 
				  (string-match "^-----END CERTIFICATE-----$" data begincert)
				  (write-region (substring data begincert (+ (match-end 0) 1)) nil filename)
				  (bbdb-record-putprop rec 'certfile filename)
				  (bbdb-change-record rec t)
				  (bbdb-redisplay-one-record rec)
				  (message (concat "Saved certificate and updated BBDB record for " address))))
			      (ding)(message "smime-certificate-directory not correctly set.")))
		      (message (concat "No entry for address " address " in the BBDB.")))))
	      (progn (ding)
		     (message "No valid S/MIME signed message found.")))
	  (ding)(message "No article buffer available.")))
      (ding)(message "No field 'certfile' defined in BBDB."))))

Again: tested only with gnus 5.10.8. This function does not call openssl, instead it uses the information inserted by mml-smime-verify, so this might break with newer version. --DavidEngster

Retrieving certificates via LDAP

ExtendSMIME redefines some Gnus functions and adds new ones to include proper support for multiple recipients, retrieval and caching of certificates from LDAP servers, and (via DefaultEncrypt) automatic insertion of MML tags into messages if certificates for all recipients are available.

Update: epg and gpgsm

Using smime is significantly easier, when using epg (the EasyPG Library) and gpgsm (I have tested this combination with Xemacs 21.5.32 (mule) and “Ma Gnus v0.6” under Kubuntu 10.04; gpgsm should run for all Linux distributions, for MacOS I am not sure, nor for MS Windows.)

I recommend the following minimal configuration (from my gpgsm.conf file):


And in gpg.conf I have:


The easiest solution now is to reboot the machine so that the agent starts up correctly. Suppose you have obtained a personal certificate in p12 format, containing your private key, say from, you import the certificate into gpgsm by

gpgsm --import 

It remains to set up gnus:

(require 'epa-file)
(setq epg-debug t)

(setq mm-decrypt-option 'always)
(setq mm-verify-option 'always)
(setq gnus-buttonized-mime-types '("multipart/encrypted" "multipart/signed"))
(setq mml-smime-use 'epg)

With this setting gpgsm will take care of extracting public keys from signed messages and storing them appropiately.

Now in gnus the commands you should use are:

(mml-secure-message-encrypt-smime nil)
(mml-secure-message-encrypt-smime 1)

--Uwe Brauer

Encrypting to all recipients

I couldn’t find an easy way to do this, so I wrote one. This works in any message-mode, not just Gnus. (I’m currently using notmuch).

As written, it depends on a configured LDAP server to fetch certificates. That’s how my employer works, and I assume how many other places that require S/MIME work. Set ‘smime-ldap-host-list’ if you haven’t already.

(defun neale/smime-encrypt ()
  "S/MIME encrypt to all recipients and yourself.

Looks up everybody in LDAP to get their key first.
  (let* ((recips (mm-delete-duplicates (split-string (message-options-set-recipient) ", ")))
	 (mycertbuf (smime-cert-by-ldap user-mail-address))
	 (certbufs (mapcar 'smime-cert-by-ldap recips))
	 (tags '()))
    (dolist (certbuf certbufs)
      (setq tags (cons (buffer-name certbuf) tags))
      (setq tags (cons 'certfile tags)))
      (goto-char (point-min))
      (cond ((re-search-forward
	      (concat "^" (regexp-quote mail-header-separator) "\n") nil t)
	     (goto-char (setq insert-loc (match-end 0)))
	     (unless (looking-at "<#secure")
	       (apply 'mml-insert-tag
		      'method "smime"
		      'mode "encrypt"
		      'certfile (buffer-name mycertbuf)

CategoryGnus GnusPGG EncryptingMail