While the home-folder encryption in Ubuntu is far from a perfect solution (there is considerable data leakage from the swap file and the temp directory - for example once I’ve observed the flash videos from Chromium ~~porn~~ private browsing mode being present in the /tmp directory), it is a partial solution nevertheless and very easy to set up during installation. However what can you do if you need to recover the data because you fubard your system?

Credit where credit is due: this guide is taken mostly from the Ubuntu wiki page. Also, this is not an easy “one-click” process. You should proceed carefully, especially if you don’t have much experience with the command line.

  1. Start Ubuntu (from a separate install, from the LiveCD, etc) and mount the source filesystem (this is usually as simple as going to the Places menu and selecting the partition)
  2. Start a terminal (Alt+F2 -> gnome-terminal) and navigate to the partitions home directory. Usually this will look like the following:

    cd /media/9e6325c9-1140-44b7-9d8e-614599b27e05/home/
  3. Now navigate to the users ecryptfs directory (things to note: it is ecryptfs not encryptfs and your username does not coincide with your full name - the one you click on when you log in)

    cd .ecryptfs/username
  4. The next step is to recovery your “mount password” which is different from the password you use to log in (when it asks you, type in the login password used for this account - for which you are trying to recover the data). Take note of the returned password (you can copy it by selecting it and pressing Shift+Ctrl+C if you are using the Gnome Terminal)

    ecryptfs-unwrap-passphrase .ecryptfs/wrapped-passphrase
  5. Now create a directory where you would like to mount the decrypted home directory:

    sudo mkdir /media/decrypted
  6. Execute the following and type in (or better - copy-paste) the mount password you’ve recovered earlier

    sudo ecryptfs-add-passphrase --fnek

    It will return something like the following. Take note of the second key (auth tok):

    Inserted auth tok with sig [9986ad986f986af7] into the user session keyring 
    Inserted auth tok with sig [76a9f69af69a86fa] into the user session keyring
  7. Now you are ready to mount the directry:

    sudo mount -t ecryptfs /media/9e6325c9-1140-44b7-9d8e-614599b27e05/home/.ecryptfs/username/.Private /media/decrypted
     Passphrase:  # mount passphrase
     Selection: aes
     Selection: 16
     Enable plaintext passthrough: n 
     Enable filename encryption: y # this is not the default!
     Filename Encryption Key (FNEK) Signature: # the second key (auth tok) noted

    You will probably get a warning about this key not being seen before (you can type yes) and asking if it should be added to your key cache (you should type no, since you won’t be using it again probably).

That’s it, now (assuming everything went right) you can access your decrypted folder in /media/decrypted. The biggest gotcha is that home/username/.Private is in fact a symlink, which - if you have an other partition mounted - will point you to the wrong directory, so you should use the home/.ecryptfs/username directory directly.