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If I am using 'gpg -c --cipher-algo AES256 filename.tar' to symmetrically encrypt a .tar archive, is there a key file somewhere on the hard disk? What I mean is, if someone stole my computer, and the filesystem itself wasn't encrypted, would they even have to bother trying to guess the passphrase, or is there a file similar to the private key that is created for RSA that can just decrypt anything?
That is correct. But if someone gained root access to the system, they'd likely be able to use a wide variety of methods to get your password or get around it next time you accessed the file in question. Basically, there's no security on a compromised system. All you can do is prevent the system from being compromised or detect when it is.