question on decryption with missing passcode

Jay Sulzberger jays at
Thu Apr 18 01:14:55 CEST 2013

On Wed, 17 Apr 2013, Beith, Linda <lbeith at> wrote:

> Hi folks,
> I am new to the list and am hoping someone can provide some
> suggestions for a situation we have at my University. We have
> had a rather catastrophic loss of all data from one of our Fall
> 2012 courses on our Sakai open source learning management
> server. To compound matters, we have a military student who had
> an incomplete in that course and is on deadline to finish his
> work and submit his grades or face being dropped from his
> academic program.
> Since our Sakai instance is hosted by a third-party vendor we
> don't have direct access to the application at the server
> level, so each month the vendor makes a backup copy of our full
> database and encrypts/zips it using GNU PG so we can download
> it.  We then decrypt it using the passcode they provide and we
> can run stats against the resulting SQL file.
> I had a backup file from early December 2012 that I had
> downloaded but never opened. I sent the file back to our vendor
> in hopes of being able to retrieve the course data

I do not understand.  If usually you just "use the passcode" to
decrypt the backup file, why did you treat the early December
2012 differently?  Whys should the "vendor" handle this?  Why not
you, in the usual way, by using the passcode for that backup

>                                                    however when
> they tried to unzip/decrypt it, they were not prompted for the
> passcode and just got an error:
> Gpg: can't open 'rwu.dbdump_Nov2012.sql.gz.gpg'
> Gpg: decrypt_message filed: file open error

If I understand correctly:

1. There was an original file, call it A .

2. gzip was applied to A to get the file A.gz .

3. Then gpg was applied to get A.gz to get A.gz.gpg .

I ask

What operation of gpg was applied to produce A.gz.gpg from A.gz ?

Is the "passcode" a PGP public key, or something else?

I have likely not understood how things work, but one natural
way, it seems to me, would be to have the course publish a PGP
public key, and anyone who wanted to send a file to the
teachers/administrators of the course could just use gpg to send
the file, not as cleartext, but encrypted with the public key of
the course.  In this situation, there would be no "passcode"
provided by the vendor, but rather just the course's own public
key, with the course carefully keeping the corresponding private
key private.

> We can't have them redo the backup because it is too late - the
> files are no longer on their server. So the only source of the
> work is locked in this zipped file. The zipped file is quite
> large - over 1 GB so we know there is data there - we just
> can't get to it.
> The assumption is that something went wrong in the original
> encryption of the file. Do you have idea if it is possible to
> extract data in this situation?
> I appreciate any help or suggestions you can provide,
> Linda

Perhaps gpg's encryption failed.  But more likely it seems to me
the big file was corrupted in transit.  I have heard, though it
always seemed almost unbelievable, that some http browsers
corrupt files, unless the browser is specifically told not to.
It is also the case, and this I believe easily, that many email
stacks corrupt files sent via the stack.  I believe this easily
because I remember the early, and now traditional, misdesign of
parts of our email system.

I'd try getting hold of the file by transporting it from the
vendor to you by using "rsync --rsh=ssh ...".  In my experience
rsync is reliable for even gigabyte files.


> Linda L. Beith, Ph.D.
> Roger Williams University
> Director, Instructional Design
> One Old Ferry Road, Bristol RI
> 401-254-3134
> Website:<>

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