Ssh keys

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An ssh key is a way of identifying (authenticating) yourself when connecting to a server per ssh. A different popular authentication method is via a password.

Why should I use it?

When you connect to a server, authenticating via a password there are two main problems:

  • Someone could bruteforce or guess the password, since many passwords are commonly weak, hard to remember or used for multiple applications and then cracked/leaked.
  • Someone could intercept/crack your password, since it has to be send to the server at some point in some form.

How-to-use-it

Generate a key

You should start by generating a key pair:

$ ssh-keygen -b 4096

where you can specify the max length of the key up to 16384 bits.

You can then optionally protect your key with a passphrase. (Your key is basically just a file sitting on your computer and a passphrase protects your key, if someone happens to steal/copy that file).

If you did not specify a different file, the key normaly gets generated into the folder

~/.ssh

with the files id_rsa being your private and id_rsa.pub being your public key.

Copy the public key to the server

This public key now has to be copied to the server to the

~/.ssh/authorized_keys

file. This can be done, by opening an ssh connection via password and then using an editor (e.g. vim) to paste the key into the file (creating the .ssh directory if it does not exist):

$ mkdir ~/.ssh
$ vim ~/.ssh/authorized_keys

The next time you ssh to the server, it should use the key and instead of prompting the password for the server, prompt for the passphrase of the key, if you chose to employ a passphrase.

Troubleshooting

If it still asks for your password, something went wrong. In that case you should check, whether the authorized_keys file really contains the key by executing:

$ cat ~/.ssh/authorized_keys

on the server and

$ cat ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub

on your local machine. If the key of your local machine is not contained in the authorized_keys on the server, repeat the steps

How-it-works

The basic principle is that of public and private keys. A public key is like an indestructible piggy bank: Everybody can put something (data) into it and nobody can get it back out again. A private key is the key for this. In this way you can distribute all the piggy banks you like and if someone put something in there and sends it back, only you can open it with your private key.

Now since you gave the server the public key, it can encrypt something (say a random number) and only you can decrypt this number, since only you have the private key.

For more detailed information on how this works, head over to the References.


References

SSH keys on the archlinux wiki

Public and private keys easily explained

More detailed explanation of the connection and encryption process of ssh