More Secure SSH Connections

Passwordless Connections

Passwords can be reasonably secure, but you don't have them written down on a Post-It by your computer, do you? However, if you use a not-too-complex password (so it can be determined by brute force or a dictionary attack), then your site will be compromised for so long as the attacker wishes. There's a safer way, by using public/private key logins, that has the extra advantage of requiring no passwords on the remote site. Rather, you'll have a part of the key (the "private" part) on your remote machine and the other part (the "public" part) on the remote server. Others won't be able to impersonate you unless they have your private key, and it's computationally unfeasible to calculate. Without going into how the key pair is created, let's move on to using it.

First, make sure your sshd configuration file allows for private key logins. You should have RSAAuthentication yes and PubkeyAuthentication yes lines in it. (If not, add them, and restart the service as described above.) Without those lines, nothing I explain below will work. Then, use ssh-keygen to create a public/private key pair. By directly using it without any more parameters (Listing 4), you'll be asked in which file to save the key (accept the standard), whether to use a passphrase for extra security (more on this below, but you'd better do so), and the key pair will be generated. Pay attention to the name of the file in which the key was saved. You'll need it in a moment.

Listing 4. Generating a public/private key pair with ssh-keygen is simple. Opt for using a passphrase for extra security.

$ ssh-keygen
Generating public/private rsa key pair.
Enter file in which to save the key (/home/fkereki/.ssh/id_rsa):
Created directory '/home/fkereki/.ssh'.
Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase):
Enter same passphrase again:
Your identification has been saved in /home/fkereki/.ssh/id_rsa.
Your public key has been saved in /home/fkereki/.ssh/
The key fingerprint is:
84:13:e6:07:a3:b1:b4:c6:9f:29:b8:40:58:f5:23:26 fkereki@fedoraxfce
The key's randomart image is:
+--[ RSA 2048]----+
|  ..+ =          |
|.. o O =         |
|..E O * o        |
|.  = o B         |
|. . . + S        |
| . . .           |
|  .              |
|                 |
|                 |

Now, in order to be able to connect to the remote server, you need to copy it over. If you search the Internet, many sites recommend directly editing certain files in order to accomplish this, but using ssh-copy-id is far easier. You just have to type ssh-copy-id -i the.file.where.the.key.was.saved specifying the name of the file in which the public key was saved (as you saw above) and the remote user and host to which you will be connecting (Listing 5). And you're done.

Listing 5. After generating your public/private pair, you need to use ssh-copy-id to copy the public part to the remote server.

$ ssh-copy-id -i /home/fkereki/.ssh/ fkereki@
The authenticity of host ' (' 
 ↪can't be established.
RSA key fingerprint is 16:a4:d8:6a:ee:e0:8d:f4:72:a8:af:42:75:1d:28:3b.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)? yes
Warning: Permanently added '' (RSA) to the list 
 ↪of known hosts.
fkereki@'s password:

In order to test your new passwordless connection, just do ssh If you used a passphrase, you'll be asked for it now. In either case, the connection will be established, and you won't need to enter your password for the remote site (Listing 6).

Listing 6. After you've copied the public key over, you can log in to the remote server without a password. You will have to enter your passphrase though, if you used one when generating the public/private pair.

$ ssh fkereki@
Enter passphrase for key '/home/fkereki/.ssh/id_rsa':
Last login: Mon Jan 10 18:40:11 2011

6.0 Light Final built on March 31, 2009 on Linux
You are working as fkereki
Frequently used programs:
Configuration  : vasm
File manager   : mc (press F2 for useful menu)
Editor         : mcedit, nano, vi
Multimedia     : alsamixer, play
$ logout
Connection to closed.

Now, what about the passphrase? If you create a public/private key pair without using a passphrase, anybody who gets access to your machine and the private key immediately will have access to all the remote servers to which you have access. Using the passphrase adds another level of security to your log in process. However, having to enter it over and over again is a bother. So, you would do better by using ssh-agent, which can "remember" your passphrase and enter it automatically whenever you try to log in to a remote server. After running ssh-agent, run ssh-add to add your passphrase. (You could run it several times if you have many passphrases.) After that, a remote connection won't need a passphrase any more (Listing 7). If you want to end a session, use ssh-agent -k, and you'll have to re-enter the passphrase if you want to do a remote login.

Listing 7. Using ssh-agent frees you from having to re-enter your passphrase.

$ ssh-agent
SSH_AUTH_SOCK=/tmp/ssh-Rvhhx30943/agent.30943; export SSH_AUTH_SOCK;
echo Agent pid 30944;

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

$ ssh fkereki@
Last login: Mon Jun 10 18:44:15 2013 from
6.0 Light Final built on March 31, 2009 on Linux
You are working as fkereki
Frequently used programs:
Configuration  : vasm
File manager   : mc (press F2 for useful menu)
Editor         : mcedit, nano, vi
Multimedia     : alsamixer, play

You also may want to look at keychain, which allows you to reuse ssh-agent between logins. (Not all distributions include this command; you may have to use your package manager to install it.) Just do keychain, enter your passphrase (Figure 1), and until you reboot the server or specifically run keychain -k all to stop keychain, your passphrase will be stored, and you won't have to re-enter it. Note: you even could log out and log in again, and your key still would be available. If you just want to clear all cached keys, use keychain --clear.

Figure 1. By entering your passphrase once with keychain, it will be remembered even if you log out.

If you use a passphrase, you could take your private keys with you on a USB stick or the like and use it from any other machine in order to log in to your remote servers. Doing this without using passphrases would just be too dangerous. Losing your USB stick would mean automatically compromising all the remote servers you could log in to. Also, using a passphrase is an extra safety measure. If others got hold of your private key, they wouldn't be able to use it without first determining your passphrase.

Finally, if you are feeling quite confident that all needed users have their passwordless logins set up, you could go the whole mile and disable common passwords by editing the sshd configuration file and setting PasswordAuthentication no and UsePAM no, but you'd better be quite sure everything's working, because otherwise you'll have problems.

Using SSH and PuTTY

You can use SSH public/private pairs with the common PuTTY program, but not directly, because it requires a specific, different key file. In order to convert your SSH key, you need to do puttygen $HOME/.ssh/your.private.key -o your.private.key.file.for.putty. Afterward, you simply can open PuTTY, go to Connection, SSH, Auth and browse for your newly generated "Private key file for authentication".


There's no definitive set of security measures that can 100% guarantee that no attacker ever will be able to get access to your server, but adding extra layers can harden your setup and make the attacks less likely to succeed. In this article, I described several methods, involving modifying SSH configuration, using PAM for access control and public/private key cryptography for passwordless logins, all of which will enhance your security. However, even if these methods do make your server harder to attack, remember you always need to be on the lookout and set up as many obstacles for attackers as you can manage.


The SSH protocol is defined over a host of RFC (Request for Comments) documents; check for a list.

Port numbers are assigned by IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority), and you can go to for a list.

The primary distribution site for PAM is at, and the developers' site is at

Read for more on keychain by its author, Daniel Robbins.

You can see the RSA original patent at and the RSA Cryptography Standard at

For extra security measures, read "Implement Port-Knocking Security with knockd", in the January 2010 issue of Linux Journal, or check it out on-line at


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