Given you have two tools that work on their own, with a similar interfaces, how complex can it be to integrate primitives from one tool into another? It turns out harder than expected. In this blog, I’ll discuss my experience understanding, designing, and implementing an age plugin for tlock.

Background Link to heading

age is an encryption tool with opinionated cryptography, and a clean command line interface. It’s implemented in multiple languages such as Go or Rust, and has a flourishing ecosystem.

I want to emphasise here. If you’ve used CLIs in the past, age is among the easiest to use.

tar cvz ~/data | age -r age1ql3z7hjy54pw3hyww5ayyfg7zqgvc7w3j2elw8zmrj2kg5sfn9aqmcac8p > data.tar.gz.age

By comparison, openssl would look like

tar cvz ~/data | openssl rsautl -encrypt -pubin -inkey ~/.ssh/ > data.tar.gz.enc

age ships with a dedicated tool to generate key in its format.

age-keygen -o key.txt
Public key: age1ql3z7hjy54pw3hyww5ayyfg7zqgvc7w3j2elw8zmrj2kg5sfn9aqmcac8p

age-keygen generates an x25519 keypair. The public key is encrypted with a specific format and then in bech32.

bech32 is based32 + some added checksum validation. Most notably, this got used in bitcoin address format

It’s possible to extend age possibilities by creating a program that would integrate with its plugin system. We’re going to detail this in a later section.

Why creating an age plugin Link to heading

The short answer is we have a new protocol which leverages age as an encryption file format, and we’d like to integrate it within the standard age tooling.

This protocol is tlock, an encryption layer encrypting towards a specific point in time. More precisely, with tlock, we define the specific stanza

STANZA = [round, hash]

where hash is the identifier of a distributed randomness beacon (drand beacon), and round is the round number corresponding to the desired encryption time. The relation between time and round is encryption_time = round*period + genesis.

This is only one stanza, and could be layer with other age compatible ones. In fact, all existing implementations for tlock leverages this by first generating an age key, and then wrapping the key within a tlock stanza. tlock-rs even involuntarily integrates a greasing stanza due to its dependency on rage (age implementation in Rust).

One could create an age file using dee as follow

tar cvz ~/data | dee crypt --encrypt -r $(date) > data.tar.gz.age

You notice this is very similar to age. The whole interfacing with files and stream is identical.

For the careful observer, there are two differences:

  • The -r flag, representing the round, is no longer bech32 encoded.
  • There is no flag for the hash.

These are two reasons why dee got created before an age plugin. We’re going to dive into why their removals are challenging to implement an age plugin in the next sections.

Age plugin system Link to heading

age plugins are programs in the PATH which name starts with age-plugin-. For tlock, this would be age-plugin-tlock. These programs are able to comprehend age plugin protocol, defined as a state machine. age instantiate them automatically when required, depending on the recipient or identity.

For a recipient, the command would look like age -r age1tlock1<BECH32>. Similar to age-keygen, the recipient is provided by calling the plugin. Considering tlock requires a round number and a chain hash, a sensible first approximation would be age-plugin-tlock --generate -r $(date) --hash <hash>.

The identity is loaded upon decryption for matching tlock identity age --decrypt -i ./fastnet.key. This needs to be generated upfront, and ideally does not change. Given tlock does not know the decryption secret ahead of time (that’s the principle of tlock), we can provide a remote which can be used to fetch this information.

Taking both the recipient and the identity into account at key generation time, we proceed with the following characteristics:

component value
stanza tlock
plugin name age-plugin-tlock
recipient [hash, public_key]
identity [remote]

Therefore, key generation

age-plugin-tlock --generate --remote
# created: 2023-08-08T14:38:32+02:00
# recipient: age1tlock1yrda2pkkaamwtuux7swx28wtszx9hj7h23cucn40506d77k5unzfxc9qhp32w5nlaca8xx7tty5q4d4t6ck4czmw5q7ufh0kvyhaljwsruqux92z2sthryp5wh43a3npt7xsmu9ckmww8pvpr4kulr97lwr4ne0xz63al5z5ey5fgpmxmxjmnku3uwmf0ewhp2t4rq0qqlu8ljj7lng8rlmrqvpvft27

User experience considerations Link to heading

During the recipient and identity definition, there has been multiple options to choose from.

To operate with age tooling, age-plugin-tlock needs all informations to be available from both the recipient and identity. At encryption time, it needs a recipient. At decryption time, it needs the identity that completes the stanza information.

This format has been defined ad-hoc, and is likely to evolve in the future. It follows two design constraints. The first one is identity files need to be transferable. This means that every information within the file should be self contained. The second is to be offline first. This constraint is satisfiable for encryption, but not as easy for decryption, as we don’t know the secret key ahead of time. Otherwise this would not be timelock.

Format Link to heading

Stanza Link to heading

tlock <ROUND> <HASH>
  • <ROUND> is the drand beacon round number,
  • <HASH> is a drand chain hash hex encoded,

Encoded in plain text.


tlock 4641203 dbd506d6ef76e5f386f41c651dcb808c5bcbd75471cc4eafa3f4df7ad4e4c493

Recipient Link to heading

  • <HASH> is a drand chain hash,
  • <PUBLIC_KEY> is a drand chain public key,
  • <GENESIS> is the genesis unix time of a drand chain in seconds,
  • <PERIOD> is the period between rounds of a drand chain in seconds,

Encoded as wireformat bech32 text.



<HASH> is required to fill the stanza, nothing more. <PUBLIC_KEY> is required for tlock encryption. <GENESIS> and <PERIOD> are used to parse beacon round information. Round is provided at encryption time. This is a tradeoff between being able to reuse the same identity multiple times (one per drand chain), and having a more accurate recipient, which would be limited to round and public key information.

Identity Link to heading

  • <TYPE> is 0 for RAW or 1 for HTTP. It provides flexibility on upgrading the identity between implementation and threat model,
  • <IDENTITY> is the bytes of the beacon signature corresponding to the round for RAW, and is an remote HTTP URL in case of HTTP,

Encoded as wireformat bech32 text.



Implementation Link to heading

One can find the implementation of age-plugin-tlock on thibmeu/tlock-rs. To use it, first make sure you have a valid age installation. Then run the installation process, which is cargo install -- age-plugin-tlock.

Usage Link to heading

Generate recipient and identity Link to heading

None of the recipient or identity is secret. The identity secrecy resides in its usefulness only after a certain point in time.

Create an identity for fastnet.

age-plugin-tlock --generate --remote > fastnet.key

For convenience, you can also create an associated recipient

cat fastnet.key | grep 'recipient' | sed 's/.*\(age1.*\)/\1/' >

If we check fastnet.key, it looks like shown below. The recipient is long.

# created: 2023-08-08T14:38:32+02:00
# recipient: age1tlock1yrda2pkkaamwtuux7swx28wtszx9hj7h23cucn40506d77k5unzfxc9qhp32w5nlaca8xx7tty5q4d4t6ck4czmw5q7ufh0kvyhaljwsruqux92z2sthryp5wh43a3npt7xsmu9ckmww8pvpr4kulr97lwr4ne0xz63al5z5ey5fgpmxmxjmnku3uwmf0ewhp2t4rq0qqlu8ljj7lng8rlmrqvpvft27

Timelock encryption Link to heading

Encrypt Hello age-plugin-tlock! string to round 30 seconds in the future, using fastnet publickey. If you wait 30 seconds before decrypting, the message is decrypted using the new fastnet signature.

echo "Hello age-plugin-tlock" | ROUND="30s" age -a -R > data.age
age --decrypt -i fastnet.key data.age
Hello age-plugin-tlock

Rust library Link to heading

The cli is powered by a wrapper around rage. This library exposes the following methods

/// Run the state machine for the plugin, as defined on [GitHub](
/// This is the entry point for the plugin. It is called by the age client.
pub fn run_state_machine(
    state_machine: String,
    plugin_name: &str,
    parse_round: fn(&RecipientInfo, &str) -> u64,
    get_signature: fn(&str, &Header) -> Vec<u8>,
) -> io::Result<()>;

/// Print the new identity information.
pub fn print_new_identity(plugin_name: &str, identity: &IdentityInfo, recipient: &RecipientInfo);

In addition, a client needs to decide on the correct identity, either RAW or HTTP, exposed as

pub struct RawIdentityInfo {
    signature: Vec<u8>,

pub struct HTTPIdentityInfo {
    url: String,

To learn more about the implementation details, check out the library implementation. It wraps tlock_age identities within plugin compatible identities.

Moving forward Link to heading

We now have an age plugin! This does not mean we should stop there, There are improvements we could do moving forwards.

Concerning the interaction between tlock and drand, I think we should remove the chain hash from the stanza. It comes from an assumption this is going to be useful at decryption time, which is not the case for tlock. The public key would be more useful, and we might be able to reconstruct it from the encrypted file.

For tlock and age, we should iterate on what constitute a valid recipient. Especially, I consider offline encryption as necessary, and being able to parse 30s as well.

Finally, for age specifically, the plugin system works, but does not provide the smoothest experience. The maintainer mentioned having state for identities, a la GPG, which would match pet names of dee. In this case, I think these should be clearly distinct from existing age recipient, as they would not be portable identities. In addition, it would be great to have a mechanism to add arguments to the age binary. For age-plugin-tlock, it could be age -r fastnet.key -- --round 30s. This is simpler than the current request-public mechanism, and allows for integration in every cli, which the tty does not allow for.

Call for action Link to heading

Thanks for reading through. I’ll leave you with links to learn more about dee and age-plugin-tlock