Monthly Archives: December 2008

Stop entering passwords: How to set up ssh public/private key authentication for connections to a remote server


This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on a blog called The Michigan Telephone Blog, which in turn was reposted with the permission of the original author from a now-defunct Macintosh-oriented blog. It is reposted with his permission. Comments dated before the year 2013 were originally posted to The Michigan Telephone Blog.

This article assumes that you are already able to ssh into a remote server using a password (that is, that your account has been created on the remote system and you are able to access it). Here’s how to set up ssh public/private key authentication so you don’t have to use the password on future logins, or so you can use Public Key authentication with MacFusion.

First, open a terminal or iTerm window as we will be using it for most of the following operations. First, navigate to your home directory, and see if there is a folder called .ssh. Note that Finder will NOT show you this directory unless you have it set to show all file extensions, so since we are at a command line prompt anyway, it’s easiest to just type “cd ~” (without the quotes) to go to your home directory in Terminal or iTerm and type “ls -a” (again without the quotes – always omit the quotes when we quote a command) to see if the .ssh directory exists. If it does, go into the directory (”cd .ssh”) and see if there are two files called id_rsa and (use “ls -a” again). If either the directory or the files do not exist, you will need to create them.

ssh-keygen -t rsa -f ~/.ssh/id_rsa -C ""

Replace with your email address – this is just to make sure the keys are unique, because by default it will use your_user_name@your_machine_name.local, which might come up with something too generic, like john@Mac.local. It’s unlikely that anyone else is using your e-mail address in a key.  If this process fails with a “Permission denied” error, it might be because SELinux is enabled.  To check that theory, see How to Disable SELinux, which will show you how to disable it temporarily (for testing) or permanently.

Now, from your terminal window on your local system, execute this command:

ssh-copy-id username@remote

You can run ssh-copy-id -h or man ssh-copy-id to see the available options, but normally you don’t need any. In the event your system does not have ssh-copy-id installed, you can instead run the following three commands from a terminal or iTerm window on your local system. Whichever method you use, replace username with your login name and remote with the address of the remote system. Note that you should NOT be logged into the remote system when you execute these – these are run from a command prompt on your local system, and you probably will be prompted to enter your password (for the remote system):

ssh username@remote ‘mkdir ~/.ssh;chmod 700 ~/.ssh’

The above creates the .ssh directory on the remote system and gives it the correct permissions. If the command fails (for example, I’ve had it complain that mkdir isn’t a valid command, even though it is on just about every Unix/Linux system), then either you have copied and pasted the above line and WordPress changed the single quotes to the “prettified” versions (so change them back) or you may have to actually log into the remote system (using a password) and enter the two commands individually (mkdir ~/.ssh followed by chmod 700 ~/.ssh). Then, if you don’t already have an authorized_keys file on the remote system, go back to your local terminal or iTerm window for this:

scp ~/.ssh/ username@remote:~/.ssh/authorized_keys

The above creates a new list of authorized keys on the remote system (overwriting any existing file with that name) and copies your public key to it.  If you already have such a file and don’t want it overwritten, then you’ll have to manually add the contents of your local ~/.ssh/ file to the end of the ~/.ssh/authorized_keys file on the remote system.

ssh username@remote ‘chmod 600 ~/.ssh/authorized_keys’

This fixes the permissions on the authorized_keys file on the remote system. Once again, there may be the odd situation where you can only run the command within the single quotes from the remote system.

And, that’s basically all there is to it. If you are the system administrator of the remote system, but you don’t ever plan to login from a remote location as root, then for extra security edit the file /etc/ssh/sshd_config on the remote system (you’ll probably have to be root, or use sudo to do this task). Just use your favorite text editor on the remote system to open the file, and look for a line that says:

PermitRootLogin yes

And change the “yes” to “no”.

If you are still asked for a password after you are finished making the above changes, look for a line in /etc/ssh/sshd_config that says:

StrictModes yes

And change the “yes” to “no”. You’ll need to reboot or restart the ssh server for this to take effect. An alternate, and probably more secure fix is to check the permissions on your home directory – if it is not writable by anyone but the owner, then it should not be necessary to change the StrictModes parameter. For more troubleshooting hints see Debugging SSH public key authentication problems.

The above are very basic instructions for setting up ssh public/private key authentication. There are other ways to do this (including some that are arguably a bit more secure) but we wanted to keep it simple. Hopefully this will help someone who is using ssh, MacFusion, etc. and wants something a bit more secure and less bothersome than password access.

One other note:  If you find the connection drops within a minute or so, particularly after you’ve just purchased a new router, then on the client machine running Mac OS X edit the file /private/etc/ssh_config (under Linux it’s /etc/ssh/sshd_config and I don’t know what it would be called under Windows, or if they even have such a file) and add this line:

ClientAliveInterval 60

If it still stops working lower the timeout to 30. See How to fix ssh timeout problems for more information.

If you find my instructions confusing, try SSH Passwordless Login Using SSH Keygen in 5 Easy Steps.

And, for hints on making ssh more secure (particularly if you permit access from the Internet in general and not just your local network), see this article on Securing OpenSSH (via the CentOS wiki).