Yubikeys for SSH Auth

Dec 5, 2017| Paddy Steed

You can use a Yubikey USB device to securely generate and store your SSH key. This can be used to load your private key on demand, protected by a PIN. Perfect for pair-programming on shared machines!

This post is part of a series on using Yubikeys to secure development whilst pair-programming on shared machines.

In this post I will show you how to use your Yubikey to generate and store an RSA key, and then configure your computer to use GPG to load that key and authenticate with remote SSH servers. Each time you authenticate you’ll need to have your Yubikey inserted, and you’ll be prompted for a PIN.

I’ll assume you have a Yubikey 4. Some of the terminal output will differ slightly depending on your operating system; these snippets are captured on Fedora.

Why store your RSA key on a Yubikey?

Digital security is generally much more difficult than physical security. If I have a secret written on a piece of paper, I could hide that paper somewhere, I could keep it on my person, I could put it in safety deposit box. All of these are pretty good ways to make sure nobody reads whatever is on the paper, and all are simple to reason about. If I have that same secret on a file on my laptop, however, there is much more to think about. Every piece of software I run has permission to read that file.

My laptop has a network connection, so an attacker does not need to ever meet me to steal my secret. A Yubikey almost turns a digital security problem into a physical security one.

If your SSH key is stored on a Yubikey it cannot be copied, it cannot be stolen remotely, and the software on whatever machine you stick it into cannot read it. You can even PIN protect the key, which means that if somebody physically steals your Yubikey they would have to guess the PIN correctly to be able to use it, and even then, they would be unable to extract the key.

On 15 October 2017 a serious problem was announced in a library used by Yubikey firmware responsible for generating RSA keys. The ROCA (Revenge of Coppersmith's Attack) hack enables the computing of the private part of a RSA keypair from the public part alone.


This is fixed in all Yubikeys manufactured since June, and I am comfortable recommending generating RSA keys on your Yubikey.

Set Yubikey PINs

Install gpg using your operating system’s package manager so that you can interact with your Yubikey.

Plug in your Yubikey, and run gpg --change-pin to change the PIN from the default of 123456. This is the PIN you’ll be asked to enter whenever you need to access the private key, for example when doing git push.

$ gpg --change-pin
1 - change PIN
2 - unblock PIN
3 - change Admin PIN
4 - set the Reset Code
Q - quit
Your selection? 1
Please enter the PIN
PIN changed.

If you enter your newly-set PIN incorrectly three times then the Yubikey will be locked, and you must unlock it using the admin PIN, which is 12345678 by default.

You should change the admin PIN too, by running the same command again, this time selecting option 3:

$ gpg --change-pin
1 - change PIN
2 - unblock PIN
3 - change Admin PIN
4 - set the Reset Code
Q - quit
Your selection? 3
gpg: 3 Admin PIN attempts remaining before card is permanently locked
Please enter the Admin PIN
New Admin PIN
New Admin PIN
Admin PIN changed.

If you later enter the admin PIN incorrectly three times you will need to factory-reset the Yubikey.

Configure Machines to use GPG Agent

Firstly, you need to configure ssh on the machines you’ll be working on to use gpg-agent to handle authentication, which will in turn load an RSA key from your Yubikey - provided that you enter the correct PIN.

The below snippet appends the appropriate config to your .bashrc (if you use zsh you will need to append these lines to ~/.zshrc instead).

$ cat <<EOF >> ~/.bashrc
export GPG_TTY=$(tty)
gpg-connect-agent updatestartuptty /bye
export SSH_AUTH_SOCK=$(gpgconf --list-dirs agent-ssh-socket)
$ . ~/.bashrc

Install a PIN entry GUI

You may also want to install a GUI for entering your Yubikey’s PIN.

The default pinentry-curses CLI tool always uses the tty it was started in, which gets problematic when changing terminals or when PIN entry was prompted by a background process (such as Git Radar, which we use at EngineerBetter).

To install a PIN entry GUI on macOS, run brew install pinentry-mac. On Linux you might want to install pinentry-gui.

Generate an RSA key on your Yubikey

I recommend generating your RSA key on the Yubikey itself, rather than generating the key on your computer and then copying it to the Yubikey. This way you know that it has never been on the filesystem, where it could be snooped upon.

$ gpg --card-edit
gpg: detected reader `Yubico Yubikey 4 OTP+U2F+CCID 00 00'
Application ID ...: D2760001240102010006069174660000
Version ..........: 2.1
Manufacturer .....: unknown
Serial number ....: 06917466
Name of cardholder: [not set]
Language prefs ...: [not set]
Sex ..............: unspecified
URL of public key : [not set]
Login data .......: [not set]
Private DO 1 .....: [not set]
Private DO 2 .....: [not set]
Signature PIN ....: not forced
Key attributes ...: 2048R 2048R 2048R
Max. PIN lengths .: 127 127 127
PIN retry counter : 3 0 3
Signature counter : 0
Signature key ....: [none]
Encryption key....: [none]
Authentication key: [none]
General key info..: [none]
gpg/card> admin
Admin commands are allowed
gpg/card> generate

You will be asked if you want to backup the encryption key. If you are only using this key for SSH authentication I would recommend you do not do this. It is fairly easy to go though this process again if you lose your Yubikey, and it means your key will never leave your Yubikey.

Make off-card backup of encryption key? (Y/n) n
Please note that the factory settings of the PINs are
   PIN = `123456'     Admin PIN = `12345678'
You should change them using the command --change-pin
gpg: gpg-agent is not available in this session
Please enter the PIN
What keysize do you want for the Signature key? (2048)
What keysize do you want for the Encryption key? (2048)
What keysize do you want for the Authentication key? (2048)
Please specify how long the key should be valid.
         0 = key does not expire
      <n>  = key expires in n days
      <n>w = key expires in n weeks
      <n>m = key expires in n months
      <n>y = key expires in n years

By default, your key will not expire. I would recommend setting an expiry date.

Key is valid for? (0) 1y
Key expires at Wed 14 Nov 2018 14:18:02 GMT
Is this correct? (y/N) y
You need a user ID to identify your key; the software constructs the user ID
from the Real Name, Comment and Email Address in this form:
    "Heinrich Heine (Der Dichter) <heinrichh@duesseldorf.de>"
Real name: Paddy Steed
Email address: paddy.steed@engineerbetter.com
You selected this USER-ID:
    "Paddy Steed <paddy.steed@engineerbetter.com>"
Change (N)ame, (C)omment, (E)mail or (O)kay/(Q)uit? O
gpg: generating new key
gpg: 3 Admin PIN attempts remaining before card is permanently locked
Please enter the Admin PIN
gpg: please wait while key is being generated ...
gpg: key generation completed (4 seconds)
gpg: signatures created so far: 0
gpg: generating new key
gpg: please wait while key is being generated ...
gpg: key generation completed (6 seconds)
gpg: signatures created so far: 1
gpg: signatures created so far: 2
gpg: generating new key
gpg: please wait while key is being generated ...
gpg: key generation completed (9 seconds)
gpg: signatures created so far: 3
gpg: signatures created so far: 4
gpg: key A4D581D2 marked as ultimately trusted
public and secret key created and signed.
gpg: checking the trustdb
gpg: public key of ultimately trusted key 53157188 not found
gpg: 3 marginal(s) needed, 1 complete(s) needed, PGP trust model
gpg: depth: 0  valid:   2  signed:   0  trust: 0-, 0q, 0n, 0m, 0f, 2u
gpg: next trustdb check due at 2018-11-14
pub   2048R/A4D581D2 2017-11-14 [expires: 2018-11-14]
      Key fingerprint = 31A1 BADF 181F B053 0D06  8B45 7B4E 9486 A4D5 81D2
uid                  Paddy Steed <paddy.steed@engineerbetter.com>
sub   2048R/0A3CA35A 2017-11-14 [expires: 2018-11-14]
sub   2048R/4746682A 2017-11-14 [expires: 2018-11-14]
gpg/card> quit

Your RSA key is now generated, and the public key is stored on your GPG keychain.

Viewing the public key

Assuming you have configured gpg-agent correctly. ssh-add -L will display the public key in SSH format (you may need to open a new shell session if your ssh-agent already has a key loaded).

$ ssh-add -L
ssh-rsa AAAAB3NzaC1yc2EAAAADAQABAAABAQCy7PhCvbb+R0UIsQdBvIpWQNSBOZkfV+7E0d55Gxzppt9tvQHbWJwzi/… cardno:000606917466

You can put this in ~/.authorized_keys for any machine you want to be able to log in to, and paste it into GitHub, GitLab, and similar tools.

In action

  1. Start a terminal, or source ~/.bashrc if you’re using the same terminal as earlier
  2. Open a git repository with a remote that uses an ssh URI
  3. Do a git pull, and see that authentication fail (you shouldn’t have any keys loaded at this point - you can list loaded keys with ssh-add -l)
  4. Insert your Yubikey
  5. Do a git pull
  6. Observe the PIN entry GUI
  7. Enter your PIN
  8. Observe the GUI disappear, and the git pull complete successfully.
  9. Remove your Yubikey when you’re done working on that machine.
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