SSH Certificates


I’ve become curious about using CA-signed certificates with SSH

Some days ago I read about using certificates to access a remote SSH server, using OpenSSH. This set me in curious mode, and I have to admit that I’m still a bit curious. Here’s something, anyway.

What is this about?

The bottom line of using SSH keys is:

  • you generate a pair of keys, i.e. a private (or secure) key and a public one, bound together;
  • you copy the public one in a special place in the target server;
  • you then instruct the SSH client to use the private key when accessing the server.

When you do the access, the server makes sure that you really hold the private part of the public key it has, and if it’s convinced you are in.

Using certificates is a bit more convoluted:

  • you still generate the same pair of keys as before;
  • you send your public key to a Certification Authority (CA), which has its own pair of keys
  • the CA signs your public key with its own private key, and gives you back:
    • a certificate, holding your public key and the signature
    • its own public key (it’s public, after all)
  • you place the certificate in a special place in your local system, with a specific name;
  • you copy the CA public key in a special place in the target server;
  • you then instruct the SSH client to use the private key just like before.

There are two important aspects here:

  • the certificate file MUST be placed in the same directory as the private key, and it MUST have a name tied to the private key. As an example, if the private key is placed at ~/.ssh/my-private-key, then the certificate you get back from the CA MUST be placed at ~/.ssh/ So the key is to add to the path of the private key.
  • you don’t need to distribute the public key around, you only need to configure the CA public key properly in the target host. While this might seem a complication when used for yourself only, it is pretty useful when you have to deal with a lot of users access a lot of hosts.

Is it really useful?

There are two ways in which this is useful.

First, supposed that you have $N$ users and $M$ hosts where these users need to authenticate. Using the regular key-based access, you would have to configure each user’s public key in each host, i.e. you should do $N \cdot M$ configurations (in particular, transferring public keys).

In the CA-based scenario, if you run the CA you have to:

  • configure the CA public key in every host - $M$ configurations
  • for each user, generate a certificate - $N$ operations

i.e. $N + M$ operations. Yay!

The second way in which this mechanism is useful is if you want to provide time-boxed access to an account on a server. The funny thing about certificates is that you have to set a validity period, so you can provide a certificate that is only valid over a specific time window and forget about disabling that access afterwards - the system will do this for you.

So… how do I do this?

This is really just the gist of it, every real security consideration aside. If you want to do this in production, consult an expert that will tell you how to protect your CA secret key and all these amenities.

Generate a CA keypair

First of all, you have to be able to impersonate a CA, so generate a key pair for it:

$ ssh-keygen -t rsa -N '' -f ca-key
Your identification has been saved in ca-key.
Your public key has been saved in
The key fingerprint is:
SHA256:SdlwFliwyIdayODc4WggexPsyV/3V044maomNIzTtlY root@a7f509c6b0a6
The key's randomart image is:
+---[RSA 2048]----+
|o.o .   o+=.     |
|.=.B + o.B       |
|.oB.= = = .  +   |
| o+. o.o..  = o  |
|   ..= .S. . =   |
|    + * E o . .  |
|     + + . .     |
|      + o        |
|     . o         |

This will leave you with files ca-key (private) and (public) in the current directory. You might need to set the permissions of the directory to something like rwx------ (i.e. only accessible by the user) to make things work down the road.

Distribute the CA public key

Now let’s configure the CA public key in the target host (assuming that you can already access that host, of course!):

$ { printf '%s' 'cert-authority ' ; cat ; } \
   | ssh remote-user@remote-host /bin/sh -c 'cat - >>~/.ssh/authorized_keys'

Generate a user keypair

Now we can generate a user key, much like the CA:

$ ssh-keygen -t rsa -N '' -f user-key
Your identification has been saved in user-key.
Your public key has been saved in
The key fingerprint is:
SHA256:0UZosOKdE3cqARLxsjCmGoDcT0a5oMLeD8NbFpv7J38 root@a7f509c6b0a6
The key's randomart image is:
+---[RSA 2048]----+
|  +o..o. ..      |
|o .+.o .oo       |
|*oo.+o=.o +      |
|== ++= = =       |
|= + ..O S        |
|.o = = o         |
|.   B .          |
|   . o . . E     |
|      ..+..      |

Now, we have files user-key (private) and (public) in the current directory.

Sign user’s public key

To sign the user’s public key with the CA’s private key we would need to transfer the user’s public key where the CA is… but in this example it’s all in the same directory 😊

We can proceed with the signature, setting a Validity time (option -V) of one day:

$ ssh-keygen -s ca-key -I user -V +1d 
Signed user key id "user" serial 0 valid from 2020-03-12T22:13:00 to 2020-03-13T22:14:37

Option -s tells ssh which private key to use for signing, and option -I is needed to identify the key in the logs.

This leaves you with file, which corresponds to the private key file user-key.

Try it!

We are done! Now we can use our private key user-key as usual, but ssh will use also the certificate to perform the authentication, because we just configured the CA public key, not the user’s public key. Moreover, the certificate is valid until tomorrow… so hurry up!

$ ssh -i user-key remote-user@remote-host

Summing up

There’s still a lot to learn - I mean, I barely scratched the surface. As an example, I still have to understand what exactly a principal is and how to use it, I tried to configure something but with little luck!

I still think it was very good to learn about this, for two reasons at least:

  • I realized that in this specific case file names matter. You cannot just name your certificate how you like, you MUST name it after the corresponding private key. I’m not sure I like it…
  • I understood how to give temporary access to a server… although still in some trusty way.


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