BitKey is a Debian-based live distribution with specialist utilities for performing highly secure air-gapped bitcoin transactions.
This specialty distro is not for everyday computing needs, but if you are obsessed with the use of bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, this distro might be just what you need.
I am a high-tech sort of guy with a keen interest in diving through Linux distros both simple and complex. I’m on the lookout for new twists to old desktop environments and unique use case distros. Technologies and software solutions that make my computing life more secure and more functional are always the anticipated outcome.
However, cryptocurrencies clearly are my match. I have no interest nor need to delve into the shady world of bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies, but I am also a pragmatist. I fully recognize that ransomeware and other needs for private communications might be lurking just around the corner.
So, when I stumbled on BitKey, my interest was piqued. As I checked into the process of acquiring cryptocurrencies, I quickly discovered that learning how to use bitcoins and such would require a deeper dive than I cared to make.
That is when I discovered BitKey 14.2.0, released last month by U.S. software developers Liraz Siri and Alon Swartz at TurnKey Linux.
Key to Bitcoin Banking
The BitKey distro is almost an anomaly in the world of Linux distros. The developers aptly describe it as “a Swiss-army knife” for bitcoin users and fans.
BitKey has tools to ease the worries of the truly paranoid among bitcoin users. Its chief attribute is providing you with a range of useful utilities to perform highly secure air-gapped Bitcoin transactions.
The air gap concept is essential to safe transactions involving cryptocurrencies. The goal is to have an impenetrable wall and undiscoverable transaction trail.
Air-gapping is a network security tactic that uses multiple computers to create a secure computer network that is physically isolated from unsecured networks. BitKey makes it easy to safely store your bitcoin wallet’s private keys live on an air-gapped location. The “key” is to maintain no physical connection to the Internet.
Path to BitKey
TurnKey Linux is a Debian-based virtual appliance library. It integrates some of the best open source software into ready-to-use solutions.
These virtual appliances are optimized for easy use. They deploy quickly on bare metal, virtual machines, and in the cloud. Each is available as a CD image or virtual machine image.
BitKey became a side project using TurnKey’s open source build infrastructure.
That is the family background to the birth of the first BitKey distro version. It resulted from the developer’s efforts to use the TurnKey development tools to create a self-contained read-only CD/USB stick that contained everything to perform highly secure air-gapped bitcoin transactions.
You’ll find a complete explanation of the theory and practice behind using BitKey on the TurnKey website.
First, you must extract the ISO file from a tarball envelope. Then burn the ISO image to a CD.
That creates a standard live CD image to run the BitKey distro. To get the most functionality, add a USB drive when loading from the CD to create persistent memory for your access to several of the tools in BitKey.
A better option is to install the ISO image to a USB drive. See the website for full details.
BitKey in Action
The BitKey desktop looks much like any number of lightweight Linux offerings. It’s almost a minimalist view. The background image is a black and gray textured slate with shades of blue and white swirls.
The bottom of the screen displays a dock bar that contains the specialized cryptocurrency tools and exit icon.
BitKey is not a typical Linux distro. It has no menu button and no system settings. There is no repository or package management application, because you can not add or remove programs.
Other than the specialized tools, this distro has the bare bones minimum system tools that launch from the dock bar. These are a terminal, a file manager, a GVIM text editor and a Chromium browser that is locked in Incognito mode.
The startup screen gives you a choice of booting into one of the three available modes. Cold-offline is for creating a wallet and signing transactions. Cold-online is for watching the wallet and preparing transactions. The third choice is Hot-online.
Hot-online is for standard use. It is limited to browsing, but it is less secure because the private keys are known to the computer that is connected to the Internet.
Once you select the boot mode, the desktop loads with a pop-up window giving you three steps to get started. First, remove the BitKey boot device. Two, insert your USB drive for data storage. Three, click the Electrum icon to create or build your cold-online wallet.
From there, you launch the desired specialty tools for your intended cryptocurrency engagements. One highly special tool generates “brainwallets” for the most paranoid of bitcoin users.
BitKey uses the Metacity desktop. Metacity was the default window manager in the GNOME 2 desktop environment, but GNOME 3 replaced it with the Mutter window manager.
BitKey as a Linux distro is very simple and straightforward to use. The difficulty rests in being unfamiliar with the cryptocurrency universe. The procedures for each of the specialty applications might well be uncharted areas if you hare not already well-schooled about bitcoin mania.
If that is your situation, BitKey and the supporting documentation the developers provide could be a handy way to introduce yourself to this strange and confusing world.
This updated build ads a new paper wallet generator as well as printer and scanner support (via CUPS and SANE). The included Chromium browser also has been updated.
Want to Suggest a Review?
Is there a Linux software application or distro you’d like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?
Please email your ideas to me, and I’ll consider them for a future Linux Picks and Pans column.
And use the Reader Comments feature below to provide your input!