The curious case of denied repository access in Github Actions workflow

Posted on 01 June 2023 in Articles • 4 min read

Intro image for the article

GitHub Pages is a fantastic static site hosting service that takes HTML, CSS, and JavaScript files straight from a repository on GitHub. It is available for free on public repositories and allows configuring a custom domain for the site. The site updates just in few moments after git push. Therefore, when it comes to choosing a platform for hosting a static blog, opting for GitHub is an obvious choice.

There are three types of GitHub Pages sites: project, user and organisation. To publish a user site to https://<username>, you have to create a repository with the same name. By default, the site is served from the master branch and the root of the repository.

My blog is written in reStructuredText (reST) format and compiled into a static site via Pelican. I keep the source of the blog in a separate private repository called (surprise!) "blog." The built blog site is deployed to via force-pushing, so there is only a single branch with a single commit in the repository. The whole setup allows me to hide intermediate work and expose only the end result to the public.

For years I've been manually publishing the blog from my computer - a paradoxical situation considering my longstanding advocacy for continuous integration and delivery. Even my other hobby projects incorporate a CI/CD pipeline in some form or another. Finally, the time has come to set up a pipeline for the blog, and fortunately, in the year 2023, GitHub Actions have shown to be highly effective and efficient in getting the job done.

I set up the pipeline as follows: when a push occurs on the master branch of the blog repository, an action is triggered. This action builds the website, commits the resulting changes to the gh-pages branch, and pushes the branch to the repository.

Publishing from blog repository to repository

At this point, things became a little complicated. The workflow runs within the blog repository context but pushes the results (i.e. the site) to the repository. To accomplish this I had to utilize a dedicated personal access token (PAT) for the second repository, granting it Read and Write access to code permissions. The token was subsequently utilized in the following manner:

git push -f https://basicwolf:${MY_TOKEN} gh-pages:master

I generated a PAT and tested it by pushing the site from my computer. Everything went smoothly, and I was looking forward to quickly complete the workflow setup. Little did I know that I would be banging my head against the keyboard for two days, trying to comprehend git push permissions denials.

I pushed the workflow file and began monitoring its maiden voyage. Everything was running smoothly until the final step - pushing the site to

git push -f *** gh-pages:master
remote: Permission to BasicWolf/ denied to github-actions[bot].
fatal: unable to access '': The requested URL returned error: 403

I won't burden you with the details of verifying that the token remained intact during the git push process. Whether it involved checking its length, echoing token fragments, or generating new tokens, the token itself was sure present in the workflow. However, despite its presence, access was denied when attempting to push from the workflow run, while it was granted when pushing from my computer.

I began suspecting that an internal authorization mechanism was to blame here. However, the question remained: which one? Fortunately, the checkout action includes comprehensive logging and provides a clue in the "Setting up auth" section:

Setting up auth
  /usr/bin/git config --local --name-only --get-regexp core\.sshCommand
  /usr/bin/git config --local http. AUTHORIZATION: basic ***

Aha! The checkout action configures authorization by setting HTTP Authorization header in git's http.extraheader:

Pass an additional HTTP header when communicating with a server. If more than one such entry exists, all of them are added as extra headers. To allow overriding the settings inherited from the system config, an empty value will reset the extra headers to the empty list. [source]

What if I read the documentation for the checkout action?

The auth token is persisted in the local git config. This enables your scripts to run authenticated git commands. The token is removed during post-job cleanup .

The action includes a token parameter that has a default value of ${{ github.token }}! This token is equivalent to GITHUB_TOKEN - a unique token generated by Github at the start of each workflow run. However, it is important to note that this token is restricted to the repository where the workflow is executed.

Finally, all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. What I required was a PAT with read access to the blog source repository and write access to Once generated, I passed this PAT to the checkout action as follows:

  - uses: actions/checkout@v3
      token: ${{secrets.ACCESS_TOKEN_BASICWOLF_GITHUB_IO}}

There is no need to explicitly provide the token for git push anymore, as the git configuration remains consistent across the steps.

This marked the end of an epic quest. The workflow pipeline successfully passed, and you have just completed reading the first article that was automatically deployed to this blog :).