Setting Up SSH Keys on Unix-based Systems

About SSH Keys

Secure Shell (better known as SSH) is a cryptographic network protocol which allows users to securely perform a number of network services over an unsecured network. SSH keys provide a more secure way of logging into a server with SSH than using a password alone. While a password can eventually be cracked with a brute force attack, SSH keys are nearly impossible to decipher by brute force alone.

Generating a key pair provides you with two long string of characters: a public and a private key. You can place the public key on any server, and then unlock it by connecting to it with a client that already has the private key. When the two match up, the system unlocks without the need for a password. You can increase security even more by protecting the private key with a passphrase.

Step 1 — Creating the Key Pair

The first step is to create a key pair on the client machine (usually your computer):

ssh-keygen

Note: By default recent versions of ssh-keygen will create a 3072-bit RSA key pair, which is secure enough for most use cases (you may optionally pass in the -b 4096 flag to create a larger 4096-bit key).

After entering the command, you should see the following output:

Output:

Generating public/private rsa key pair.
Enter file in which to save the key (/your_home/.ssh/id_rsa):

Press enter to save the key pair into the .ssh/ subdirectory in your home directory, or specify an alternate path.

If you had previously generated an SSH key pair, you may see the following prompt:

Output:

/home/<your_home>/.ssh/id_rsa already exists.
Overwrite (y/n)?

If you choose to overwrite the key on disk, you will not be able to authenticate using the previous key anymore. Be very careful when selecting yes, as this is a destructive process that cannot be reversed.

You should then see the following prompt:

Output:

Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase):

Here you optionally may enter a secure passphrase, which is highly recommended. A passphrase adds an additional layer of security to prevent unauthorized users from logging in.

You should then see the output similar to the following:

Output:

Your identification has been saved in /<your_home>/.ssh/id_rsa
Your public key has been saved in /<your_home>/.ssh/id_rsa.pub
The key fingerprint is:
SHA256:/hk7MJ5n5aiqdfTVUZr+2Qt+qCiS7BIm5Iv0dxrc3ks user@host
The key's randomart image is:
+---[RSA 3072]----+
| .|
| + |
| + |
| . o . |
|o S . o |
| + o. .oo. .. .o|
|o = oooooEo+ ...o|
|.. o *o+=.*+o....|
| =+=ooB=o.... |
+----[SHA256]-----+

You now have a public and private key that you can use to authenticate. The next step is to place the public key on your server so that you can use SSH-key-based authentication to log in.

Step 2 — Copying the Public Key to Your Ubuntu Server

The quickest way to copy your public key to the Ubuntu host is to use a utility called ssh-copy-id. Due to its simplicity, this method is highly recommended if available. If you do not have ssh-copy-id available to you on your client machine, you may use one of the two alternate methods provided in this section (copying via password-based SSH, or manually copying the key).

Copying the Public Key Using ssh-copy-id

The ssh-copy-id tool is included by default in many operating systems, so you may have it available on your local system. For this method to work, you must already have password-based SSH access to your server.

To use the utility, you specify the remote host that you would like to connect to, and the user account that you have password-based SSH access to. This is the account to which your public SSH key will be copied.

The syntax is:

ssh-copy-id username@remote_host

You may see the following message:

Output:

The authenticity of host '203.0.113.1 (203.0.113.1)' can't be established.
ECDSA key fingerprint is fd:fd:d4:f9:77:fe:73:84:e1:55:00:ad:d6:6d:22:fe.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)?

This means that your local computer does not recognize the remote host. This will happen the first time you connect to a new host. Type “yes” and press ENTER to continue.

Next, the utility will scan your local account for the id_rsa.pub key that we created earlier. When it finds the key, it will prompt you for the password of the remote user’s account:

Output:

/usr/bin/ssh-copy-id: INFO: attempting to log in with the new key(s), to filter out any that are already installed
/usr/bin/ssh-copy-id: INFO: 1 key(s) remain to be installed -- if you are prompted now it is to install the new keys
username@203.0.113.1's password:

Type in the password (your typing will not be displayed, for security purposes) and press ENTER. The utility will connect to the account on the remote host using the password you provided. It will then copy the contents of your ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub key into a file in the remote account’s home ~/.ssh directory called authorized_keys.

You should see the following output: Output:

Number of key(s) added: 1

Now try logging into the machine, with: "ssh 'username@203.0.113.1'"
and check to make sure that only the key(s) you wanted were added.

At this point, your id_rsa.pub key has been uploaded to the remote account. You can continue on to Enabling SSH Key Authentication.

Copying the Public Key Using SSH

If you do not have ssh-copy-id available, but you have password-based SSH access to an account on your server, you can upload your keys using a conventional SSH method.

We can do this by using the cat command to read the contents of the public SSH key on our local computer and piping that through an SSH connection to the remote server.

On the other side, we can make sure that the ~/.ssh directory exists and has the correct permissions under the account we’re using.

We can then output the content we piped over into a file called authorized_keys within this directory. We’ll use the >> redirect symbol to append the content instead of overwriting it. This will let us add keys without destroying previously added keys.

The full command looks like this:

cat ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub | ssh username@remote_host "mkdir -p ~/.ssh && touch ~/.ssh/authorized_keys && chmod -R go= ~/.ssh && cat >> ~/.ssh/authorized_keys"

You may see the following message: Output:

The authenticity of host '203.0.113.1 (203.0.113.1)' can't be established.
ECDSA key fingerprint is fd:fd:d4:f9:77:fe:73:84:e1:55:00:ad:d6:6d:22:fe.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)?

This means that your local computer does not recognize the remote host. This will happen the first time you connect to a new host. Type “yes” and press ENTER to continue.

Afterwards, you should be prompted to enter the remote user account password: Output:

username@203.0.113.1's password:

After entering your password, the content of your id_rsa.pub key will be copied to the end of the authorized_keys file of the remote user’s account. Continue on to Enabling SSH Key Authentication if this was successful.

Copying the Public Key Manually

If you do not have password-based SSH access to your server available, you will have to complete the above process manually.

We will manually append the content of your id_rsa.pub file to the ~/.ssh/authorized_keys file on your remote machine.

To display the content of your id_rsa.pub key, type this into your local computer:

cat ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub

You will see the key’s content, which should look something like this: Output:

ssh-rsa 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 demo@test

Access your remote host using whichever method you have available.

Once you have access to your account on the remote server, you should make sure the ~/.ssh directory exists. This command will create the directory if necessary, or do nothing if it already exists:

mkdir -p ~/.ssh

Now, you can create or modify the authorized_keys file within this directory. You can add the contents of your id_rsa.pub file to the end of the authorized_keys file, creating it if necessary, using this command:

echo <public_key_string> >> ~/.ssh/authorized_keys

In the above command, substitute the public_key_string with the output from the cat ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub command that you executed on your local system. It should start with ssh-rsa AAAA…

Finally, we’ll ensure that the ~/.ssh directory and authorized_keys file have the appropriate permissions set:

chmod -R go= ~/.ssh

This recursively removes all “group” and “other” permissions for the ~/.ssh/ directory.

If you’re using the root account to set up keys for a user account, it’s also important that the ~/.ssh directory belongs to the user and not to root:

chown -R sammy:sammy ~/.ssh

In this tutorial our user is named sammy but you should substitute the appropriate username into the above command.

We can now attempt passwordless authentication with our Ubuntu server.