Secure remote access using SSH keys

  Last modified on Saturday 06 May 2017

PROJECT: Home Server #1 .: Create cryptographic keys and disable password logins to make remote machines more secure.

Let's go!

Server is a netbook running Debian configured for SSH logins from a Linux client.

0. Install

On the server

Install openssh-server and create an SSH configuration in the home directory of users who requires access to the system ...

$ sudo apt install openssh-server
$ mkdir ~/.ssh && chmod 700 ~/.ssh && touch ~/.ssh/authorized_keys && chmod 600 ~/.ssh/authorized_keys

Collect key fingerprints ...

$ ssh-keygen -lf /etc/ssh/ >> ~/.ssh/keys.txt
$ ssh-keygen -lf /etc/ssh/ >> ~/.ssh/keys.txt
$ ssh-keygen -lf /etc/ssh/ >> ~/.ssh/keys.txt

... and give keys.txt to users to compare signature when connecting for the first time.

On the client

Install openssh-client and create the SSH folder in $HOME ...

$ sudo apt install openssh-client
$ mkdir ~/.ssh && chmod 700 ~/.ssh

Create ~/.ssh/config to hold aliases with the login options for a server. Example ...

Host netbook.lan
Port 22
User foo

Test SSH password login to the server ...

$ ssh netbook.lan
foo@'s password:
Last login: Thu Feb 19 18:07:48 2015 from chromebook.lan

Optional: Use Dynamic DNS (DDNS) to configure access to a home server from outside the local area network (LAN).

1. Keys

On the client

Generate SSH keys ...

$ ssh-keygen -t rsa -C "$(whoami)@$(hostname)-$(date -I)"

Upload the public key to the server and append to ~/.ssh/authorized_keys ...

$ cat ~/.ssh/ | ssh netbook.lan "cat >> ~/.ssh/authorized_keys"

Graphical display managers like gdm will automatically check a user account for SSH keys upon login. A pop-up box will prompt for the passphrase and the key will be added to the desktop session.

If logging into a console, tell SSH that you have keys by running ssh-add ...

$ ssh-add
$ Enter passphrase for /home/foo/.ssh/id_rsa:
Identity added: /home/foo/.ssh/id_rsa (/home/foo/.ssh/id_rsa)

All SSH sessions launched from this console will access this user key stored in memory. Make sure to test the connection before disabling password logins ...

$ ssh netbook.lan
Last login: Thu Feb 19 18:22:42 2015 from chromebook.lan

No request for passphrase indicates SSH key authentication is properly configured.

2. Disable password logins

On the server

Make the following modifications in /etc/ssh/sshd_config ...

PermitRootLogin no
PubkeyAuthentication yes
ChallengeResponseAuthentication no
PasswordAuthentication no
UsePAM no

Restart SSH ...

$ sudo systemctl restart ssh

3. Key management

Keychain is an OpenSSH key manager. From the package description ...

When keychain is run, it checks for a running ssh-agent, otherwise it starts one. It saves the ssh-agent environment variables to ~/.keychain/$HOSTNAME-sh, so that subsequent logins and non-interactive shells such as cron jobs can source the file and make passwordless ssh connections. In addition, when keychain runs, it verifies that the key files specified on the command-line are known to ssh-agent, otherwise it loads them, prompting you for a password if necessary.

On the client

Install ...

$ sudo apt install keychain

Configure ~/.bashrc ...

# setup keychain - ssh-agent management
keychain ~/.ssh/id_rsa
. ~/.keychain/$HOSTNAME-sh

Flush all cached keys from memory ...

$ keychain --clear

Optional: If using tmux enable persistent SSH key management across sessions by editing ~/.tmux.conf ...


Happy hacking!

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