Ssh, passwordless authentication

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Sometimes, you need to be able to SSH into a remote machine for scripted maintenance purposes and not get challenged with a password. To do this, you need to set up key-based authentication between the user account you'll be using on your local computer, and the user account you'll be logging into on the remote computer. Here's a quick and dirty how-to.

Creating a public/private keyset with ssh-keygen on the computer and under the user account you want to log in FROM:

ph34r# mkdir ~/.ssh
ph34r# chmod 700 ~/.ssh
ph34r# cd ~/.ssh
ph34r# ssh-keygen -t rsa
Generating public/private rsa key pair.
Enter file in which to save the key ("your_local_home"/.ssh/id_rsa):
Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase):
Enter same passphrase again: 
Your identification has been saved in id_rsa.
Your public key has been saved in
The key fingerprint is:
17:5a:e7:77:ad:2c:0b:8e:f3:97:f8:20:53:79:69:55 root@ph34r

Getting the public half of the key to the REMOTE computer and user account you want to log in TO:

ph34r# scp ~/.ssh/
ph34r# ssh
% mkdir .ssh
% chmod 700 .ssh
% cat >> .ssh/authorized_keys
% chmod 644 .ssh/authorized_keys

Checking to make sure it worked:

% exit
ph34r# ssh


From here on out, whenever logged in as root on the computer ph34r, I will be able to SSH into my account jimbo on the machine l0ath1ng without being presented with a password challenge (assuming I did NOT enter a passphrase when I generated the RSA key in the first step). Note that I will not be able to use this key to bypass the password when logging into jimbo@l0ath1ng from any account OTHER than root@ph34r - if I were try it from jimbo@ph34r, I would still need a password.

If I wanted to log in from or to any other user accounts, the steps would be the same, just do them as the appropriate user.

NOTE: it is highly HIGHLY recommended that you only set up passwordless authentication to extremely neutered accounts on the target machine; perhaps an account with absolutely no privileges at all beyond sudo permission (if necessary) to run a single script which the account in question DOES NOT have write permission on. This limits the damage a potential rogue user who compromises the computer on the other end could cause.

One way to use passwordless authentication in a safe way, is to replace the default shell (sh, csh, bash...) by a more restricted shell. The scponly is such a shell. Scponly only allows a very restricted set of commands. It can also do a chroot, thus greatly limiting the access to the system. Scponly is mainly used to let people access a remote account with commands like "scp" or "rsync" over "ssh"to do secure remote backups.

You may also be interested in these articles at IBM's "developerworks" library:

Understanding RSA/DSA authentication, Part 1
OpenSSH key management, Part 2
OpenSSH key management, Part 3

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