Key Management

Lighthouse uses a hierarchical key management system for producing validator keys. It is hierarchical because each validator key can be derived from a master key, making the validators keys children of the master key. This scheme means that a single 12-word mnemonic can be used to backup all of your validator keys without providing any observable link between them (i.e., it is privacy-retaining). Hierarchical key derivation schemes are common-place in cryptocurrencies, they are already used by most hardware and software wallets to secure BTC, ETH and many other coins.

Key Concepts

We defined some terms in the context of validator key management:

  • Mnemonic: a string of 12-words that is designed to be easy to write down and remember. E.g., "enemy fog enlist laundry nurse hungry discover turkey holiday resemble glad discover".
    • Defined in BIP-39
  • Wallet: a wallet is a JSON file which stores an encrypted version of a mnemonic.
    • Defined in EIP-2386
  • Keystore: typically created by wallet, it contains a single encrypted BLS keypair.
    • Defined in EIP-2335.
  • Voting Keypair: a BLS public and private keypair which is used for signing blocks, attestations and other messages on regular intervals, whilst staking in Phase 0.
  • Withdrawal Keypair: a BLS public and private keypair which will be required after Phase 0 to manage ETH once a validator has exited.


The key management system in Lighthouse involves moving down the above list of items, starting at one easy-to-backup mnemonic and ending with multiple keypairs. Creating a single validator looks like this:

  1. Create a wallet and record the mnemonic:
    • lighthouse account wallet create --name wally --password-file wally.pass
  2. Create the voting and withdrawal keystores for one validator:
    • lighthouse account validator create --wallet-name wally --wallet-password wally.pass --count 1

In step (1), we created a wallet in ~/.lighthouse/wallets with the name wally. We encrypted this using a pre-defined password in the wally.pass file. Then, in step (2), we created one new validator in the ~/.lighthouse/validators directory using wally (unlocking it with wally.pass) and storing the passwords to the validators voting key in ~/.lighthouse/secrets.

Thanks to the hierarchical key derivation scheme, we can delete all of the aforementioned directories and then regenerate them as long as we remembered the 12-word mnemonic (we don't recommend doing this, though).

Creating another validator is easy, it's just a matter of repeating step (2). The wallet keeps track of how many validators it has generated and ensures that a new validator is generated each time.


Directory Structure

There are three important directories in Lighthouse validator key management:

  • wallets/: contains encrypted wallets which are used for hierarchical key derivation.
    • Defaults to ~/.lighthouse/wallets
  • validators/: contains a directory for each validator containing encrypted keystores and other validator-specific data.
    • Defaults to ~/.lighthouse/validators
  • secrets/: since the validator signing keys are "hot", the validator process needs access to the passwords to decrypt the keystores in the validators dir. These passwords are stored here.
    • Defaults to ~/.lighthouse/secrets

When the validator client boots, it searches the validators/ for directories containing voting keystores. When it discovers a keystore, it searches the secrets/ dir for a file with the same name as the 0x-prefixed hex representation of the keystore public key. If it finds this file, it attempts to decrypt the keystore using the contents of this file as the password. If it fails, it logs an error and moves onto the next keystore.

The validators/ and secrets/ directories are kept separate to allow for ease-of-backup; you can safely backup validators/ without worrying about leaking private key data.

Withdrawal Keypairs

In Eth2 Phase 0, withdrawal keypairs do not serve any immediate purpose. However, they become very important after Phase 0: they will provide the ultimate control of the ETH of withdrawn validators.

This presents an interesting key management scenario: withdrawal keys are very important, but not right now. Considering this, Lighthouse has adopted a strategy where we do not save withdrawal keypairs to disk by default (it is opt-in). Instead, we assert that since the withdrawal keys can be regenerated from a mnemonic, having them lying around on the file-system only presents risk and complexity.

At the time or writing, we do not expose the commands to regenerate keys from mnemonics. However, key regeneration is tested on the public Lighthouse repository and will be exposed prior to mainnet launch.

So, in summary, withdrawal keypairs can be trivially regenerated from the mnemonic via EIP-2333 so they are not saved to disk like the voting keypairs.