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Recent content - 1 new post
1. Securing Secure Shell
Published Page by john
[ http://kwlug.org/node/753 ]
Secure shell is the de facto standard method of accessing remote and
local systems. It also has a great number of other administrative uses
too. Surprisingly SSH hasn't been very secure lately because in its
default configuration SSH uses passwords. Brute force attacks look for
common login names and passwords in an attempt to guess a valid
combination and gain access to your computer. If SSH on your system is
accessible from the Internet you are almost certainly being attacked
Why not just use secure passwords?
Secure passwords can be very effective in combating brute force attacks
but it can be hard to ensure that all passwords are suitably complex and
changed on a regular basis. If you have many users using the system, or
you have junior system administrators with access, or you have a lot of
software that requires user IDs you will likely find that controlling
passwords is hard to do.
Even with good passwords they can only be so secure. This article
discusses asymmetrical key authentication with key lengths of 2048 bits.
For a password to be as effective as 2048 random bits it would have to
be almost 800 characters long.
Another reason to avoid using passwords is that key-based authentication
is easier to use once set up and it can make for automated command
execution and data transfer. This makes things like data
synchronization, backup and administrative tasks much easier.
Asymmetric keys... What are they?
An asymmetric key pair are two keys that are cryptographically related.
Data encrypted with one key is decryptable only by the other key and
vice versa. One key is considered public and does not need to be
secured. The other key is considered private and should be protected and
This type of encryption can be used for lots of purposes. The same type
of keys are used to create web certificates and other network
encryption. It's also used in email security. Because of the nature of
the keys they can be used to ensure that only the recipient can read a
message. To do this the sender encrypts using the public key. Or the
keys can be used to authenticate the source of a message. If the public
key can decrypt a message it must have been encrypted by the holder of
the private key. This last method is what is used to authenticate users.
What will it be like to use keys for authentication?
To use a key for authentication one first creates the key pair. By
default both the public and private keys are placed in the .ssh
directory inside your home directory. By default the private key is
protected by password. Once created you copy the public key to the
remote server and place it in the remote user's .ssh/authorized_keys
With the keys in place you use ssh to access the remote server, the ssh
client asks for the private key password so that it can decrypt the
private key file. Once ssh has the key it uses it for authentication
with the remote server and you are logged in.
I know what you're thinking. If you had to supply a password how is that
different from using a password on the server? The difference is that
the password is used to decrypt the private key file on your local
system and attackers don't have access to this file so they can't use a
brute force technique. In other words the password is not used to
authenticate with the server, only to decrypt the key file.
Also the ssh client remembers your password so on subsequent uses you
are not prompted for a password.
Sounds great, how do I set it up
First you have to generate a key.
Then you have to place your public key on the remove server.
Then you should configure the remote server to accept key-based
Then I strongly recommend that you take additional measures to further
configure the server for increase security.
Okay the first step is to create your own keys. This is the easy step,
we use the ssh-keygen command.
ssh-keygen -t rsa -C 'john at mycompany.com'
By default this command will create a 2048 bit RSA key pair. You will be
asked for the file where to store the key. If this is your first time
doing this just press enter to accept the default.
You will also be asked for a pass phrase. Note the work "phrase", use
something long and complex.
The results from that command should look like:
Generating public/private rsa key pair.
Enter file in which to save the key (/home/john/.ssh/id_rsa):
Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase):
Enter same passphrase again:
Your identification has been saved in /home/john/.ssh/id_rsa.
Your public key has been saved in /home/john/.ssh/id_rsa.pub.
The key fingerprint is:
43:cc:f7:8f:01:fb:5f:e2:2c:45:b5:e5:a2:8f:89:6c john at mycompany.com
The key's randomart image is:
+--[ RSA 2048]----+
| o o|
| + o o |
| . . o. |
| S . oo . |
| . . +. |
| . .o o .|
| E + .o |
| . + |
You now have two files in your .ssh directory, an id_rsa and an
The id_rsa is your private key. Keep this file protected. You can look
at the file using the command view ~/.ssh/id_rsa.
The id_rsa.pub file is your public key. This is the key you will be
placing on remote servers. View this key using the command view
Notes on Using SSH
Before we begin you should know the commonly used SSH client options.
By default ssh logs into a remote server using the same user name as the
local session. So if you are logged in as john ssh will try to log you
in as john on the remote server. To alter this behaviour change the
server name that you use to look like an email address.
To login as root on a remote.server.com use one of these command:
ssh root at remote.server.com
ssh -l root remote.server.com
By default ssh uses the ~/.ssh/id_rsa file to find the key to use for
authentication. You can have many different keys and instruct ssh to use
a different file using the -i keyfile argument.
To use the ~/.ssh/work_key file as your key use this command:
ssh -i ~/.ssh/work_key remote.server.com
By default ssh uses the well-known TCP port 22 to connect to a remote
server. You can change this behaviour using the -p portno argument.
To use port 2222 as the remote server port use a command like this:
ssh -p 2222 remote.server.com
You can configure these on a per-host basis by creating a ~/.ssh/config
file. If you access hosts frequently that require special options you
can configure those options in this file and avoid having to use
arguments on the command line.
To do this we create a section for each host. This section has the same
effect of using all the above arguments on the command line. Only with
this file set up you don't have to supply any arguments.
You can add several Host sections to this file. Each section begins with
the Host line.
Placing your key on the remote server
Now that you have your key pair, you can place the public key onto the
remote server so that you can use it to authenticate.
Your public key needs to be configured in the remote server to allow for
authentication. To do this you have to edit the .ssh/authorized_keys
file in the remote user's home directory. So if your local user is
'john' and you want to authenticate as 'root' on the remote server using
your key, you need to place the contents of the ~john/.ssh/id_rsa.pub
file from your local system into the ~root/.ssh/authorized_keys file on
the remote system.
We can do this in many ways, but each way results in the contents of
your id_rsa.pub file being placed in the remote user's authorized_keys
If the .ssh file doesn't exist you can either ssh to another server
(even localhost) and the directory will be automatically created. You
can also create it manually:
chmod 0700 ~/.ssh
Login to the remote server using SSH and edit the remote
~/.ssh/authorized_keys file and cut-and-paste the public key text into
File Transfer Method
Copy the file to the remote server in anyway you can and add it to the
end of the authorized_keys file:
cat /tmp/id_rsa.pub >> ~/.ssh/authorized_keys
Configuring the remote server
By default the remote server is likely already configured to use keys
for authentication so if you don't have root access on the server, don't
worry it will probably work.
If you are the administrator of the remote server you can verify that it
is configured for public keys using this command:
/usr/sbin/sshd -T | grep pubkey
If the following text is displayed, then public key authentication is
Just because you are using keys for authentication doesn't mean that you
are now immune to brute force attacks. This section talks about many
ways to make your server more secure. I recommend that you enforce at
least the first two measures.
Disallow Password Authentication
The best way to prevent the success of a brute force attack is to stop
using passwords. This section tells you how to configure the server to
disallow the use of passwords entirely.
NOTE: Make sure that key based authentication is working before
continuing. If you don't then you will not be able to remotely login to
this server after making these changes.
Edit the /etc/ssh/sshd_config file and search for the text
PasswordAuthentication (note the upper and lower case). You may find
that it is commented out with a # sign. If it is remove the comment
sign. Change the setting from yes to no so the line looks like this:
Save the file and check to make sure the configuration works using this
/usr/sbin/sshd -T | grep passwordauthentication
You should see the effective configuration displayed on the screen. It
should look like this:
Then tell the server to re-read it's configuration using this command:
pkill -1 sshd
Restricting Who Can Login
Another good method of securing a server is to restrict who can login.
There are many ways to do this but I find that using a group is easiest
way to do this.
First create a group called "ssh-users":
Then add your user to the group:
usermod -G ssh-users john
Repeat that for every user who should be allowed to login to ssh.
Now we need to modify the /etc/ssh/sshd_config file to tell sshd to
allow logins only by that group. Using an editor open that file and
search for the text AllowGroups. If the line begins with a # then remove
the #. If you can't find it then add it to the end of the file. The line
should look like this:
Make sure your change is valid using the command /usr/sbin/sshd -T |
grep allowgroups. And reload the server config using pkill -1 sshd.
Changing the Port
Another common technique for protecting a server is to change the TCP
port number from the default 22 to something else. This is a good way to
prevent the numerous log messages from brute force attempts.
Edit the /etc/ssh/sshd_config file and locate the text Port. If the line
begins with a # delete the character. The resulting line should look
The above line sets the port to 2222. I recommend that you choose a
Test the configuration change with /usr/sbin/sshd -T | grep port and, if
it's correct, reload the server using pkill -1 sshd.
To instruct ssh to use the new port use the -p 2222 option, for example:
ssh -p 2222 root at remote.server.com
Other ways to secure SSH
There are many ways to further configure ssh to be more secure. I won't
cover those in this document, but I will mention them in case you are
looking to secure your server more.
If the server only needs to provide ssh access to a short list of hosts
you can use firewall rules to prevent access by any other hosts.
Restriction by Host
The /etc/ssh/sshd_config file allows specifying a hostname in the
AllowUsers configuration. You can restrict which users can login from
Port knocking is a technique that allows one to send a specific sequence
of packets to a firewall to instruct it to open certain ports. Using
port knocking you would close access to ssh in the firewall and
configure the firewall to open the port to any host that successfully
completes the knock sequence.
There are tools that allow firewalls and systems to scan for attacks and
when they occur the firewall is adjusted to prevent access from the
offending host. Often this involves watching for repeated unsuccessful
access from a host. If it tries too many times and fails the host is
Command line options for the ssh client
Additional information on options for your .ssh/config file
Additional information on options for configuring sshd
Command line options for sshd
Command line options for ssh-keygen
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