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HowTo Create and Use SSH Keys on Linux

SSH is short for "secure shell". SSH is used to "log in" to a remote system through a secure communication channel. So, for example, if you have a remote system, "x.y.z", and you are user, "todd" on that system, you can log into (ssh into) that machine with a simple command: ssh todd@x.y.z.

Each time you log into that remote system, you need to enter a password. This is fine if you only occassionally log in, but a better way. A more secure way really, is to use a generated SSH key pair.

With these instructions, you will generate an public key and a private key. You will store the private key locally and copy the public key to the remote system. This establishes a fixed authenticated association between one user on the local machine and one user on the remote machine. Once established, you will no longer be required to enter a password when ssh'ing in.

Create a SSH public private key pair

Let's say the username on the remote system is username todd...

Log into your local machine and create a 2048-bit or 4096-bit rsa key-pair...

ssh-keygen -t rsa -b 4096 -C "This is a test key"

By default, this will create two keys in /home/USERNAME/.ssh/: id_rsa and Of course, the one that ends in .pub is the public key and the one without is the private key.

You can keep the default, but I usually change the name of the key-pair to indicate a particular purpose. For this example, I am creating this keey-pair to be used to log into machine x.y.z, so I am going to name them xyzkey and You can use the same key-pair for any number of machines, maybe you differientiate by type of machine, and so you would name them similarly, like prod-webservers and

The password.

Upon creation, you can create it with a password. Often, administrators will create the keys without a password. You already log into your local account very securely, and you are creating an encrypted pipe to the remote system using this key pair. It is very common and not considered bad practice to generate a key pair with no-password, or a much simpler password than the login passwords for the remote system. Some admins intentionally change and forget the login passwords for remote systems and leverage their SSH key-pair only. Something to think about. Experiment on your own.

Using the SSH key pair

Let's assume you created a passwordless key-pair named xyzkey and How do you use it?

  • Backup the set - a USB stick, keybase fs, lastpass, ...somewhere secure

  • ssh into your remote system (hopefully the last time you need to use your username and password): ssh todd@x.y.z

  • Create the .ssh directory and set up permissions...

mkdir ~/.ssh
touch ~/.ssh/authorized_keys
chmod 700 ~/.ssh && chmod 600 ~/.ssh/*

Note: If the permissions aren't correct, SSH logins will fail.

  • Edit the ~/.ssh/authorized_keys file and cut and past the contents of your .pub key (it's one long line of txt) into that file. The contents look something like this, and there can be multiple keys (one per line):
ssh-rsa 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 This is a test key

Another way to do this is to append the key to the remote system's configuration from the local machine...

cat ~/.ssh/ | ssh todd@x.y.z 'cat - >> ~/.ssh/authorized_keys'
  • Log out of the remote machine and test your SSH key...
ssh -i ~/.ssh/xyzkey todd@x.y.z
  • More permanently, you really need to add a config file to .ssh (on the local machine)...
cd ~/.ssh
touch config
chmod 600 config

Edit that file -- config -- and add a stanza that looks like this...

# My remote test box gets an alias and configuration
host xyz
    #hostname IP_or_HOSTNAME_OF_REMOTE_SYSTEM, for example...
    hostname x.y.z
    user todd
    IdentityFile ~/.ssh/xyzkey
    # Optional settings - `man ssh_config` to learn more
    #ForwardX11Trusted yes
    #ForwardAgent yes
    #ForwardX11 yes
    #GatewayPorts yes
    #IdentitiesOnly yes
  • Now things become even easier. Here's some examples...
# This will log in as todd@x.y.z
ssh xyz

# This will log in as root@x.y.z
# Note: You will have to configure root's authorized_keys as well for this.
ssh root@xyz

# This will copy a file testfile.txt to x.y.z
scp testfile.txt xyz:

# Executing a command...
ssh xyz mkdir directory1

# rsyncing stuff
rsync --progress -r Documents todd@xyz:directory1

Lock down the root user...

You can now ssh using a password, or using the ssh-key pair.

Let's lock down root from remote access. Before we can do that, you will want to set up the normal user with sudo access, and then turn off access to root from remote ssh.

sudo setup for a normal user...

In our example, the normal user username is "todd".

Add "todd" to the "wheel" user group

usermod -a -G wheel todd

(optional, but recommended) Turn off password checking upon sudo...

  • Edit the /etc/sudoers configuration file
  • uncomment the %wheel line that includes the NOPASSWD qualifier
  • You can now execute any sudo command without having to enter the admin password.
  • Test it: sudo ls -l /root/

Turn off "root" user remote ssh logins...

In our example, the normal user username is "todd".

  • Edit /etc/ssh/sshd_config
  • Either add or edit these lines (add only if the setting does not already exist)...
PermitRootLogin no
AllowUsers todd
PasswordAuthentication no
# Probably already set to no...
ChallengeResponseAuthentication no

Note: AllowUsers can be set to multiple users.

  • Once complete, restart sshd: sudo systemctl restart sshd
  • IMPORTANT TEST: While remaining logged into "todd" in one terminal, test that you can still ssh-in to the machine using another terminal. If not, you need to troubleshoot. If you lose that connection or are logged out from the other terminal, you may have lost access to the machine. Fair warning.
  • All tested and better now? Good. Your system is now significantly more secure.