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Two Factor Authentication with OpenSSH

With all the news about Heartbleed, passwords and two-factor authentication, I figured I would finally get two-factor authentication working with my SSH servers. I've known about it in the past, but haven't done anything about it. Now is the time.

To get two-factor authentication working with your OpenSSH server, you need to install the "libpam-google-authenticator" PAM module on your system. Don't let the package name fool you, however. It is developed by Google, but it does not "phone home" to Google servers at all. It also does not require a Google account. Further, the PAM module is Free and Open Source software, licensed under the Apache 2.0 license.

To install the module on Debian-based systems, run the following:

$ sudo aptitude install libpam-google-authenticator

Once installed, run the google-authenticator(1) command, and answer the resulting questions. The questions offer a balance between increased security and convenience of use. You have the opportunity to create an HMAC-Based One-time Password (HOTP), as specified in RFC 4226, or a Time-based One-time Password (TOTP), as specified in RFC 6238. The only difference, is that with HOTP, each code is dependent on the previous codes, whereas with TOTP, each code is dependent on time. If running NTP on your SSH server, and you're using this with a phone, then TOTP would probably be a better bet, as time will be very closely synchronized, and unlikely to fall out of sync.

The command will create an ANSI QR code that you can scan on your phone to setup the codes. Further, it will print 5 backup codes in the event that you lose your phone, or don't have it, but need to login. Print those backup codes, and store them in your wallet. Just in case you need the codes, they are stored in your ~/.google_authenticator file:

$ cat ~/.google_authenticator 
YXSNFX37ZUZCKVZM
" RATE_LIMIT 3 30
" WINDOW_SIZE 17
" DISALLOW_REUSE
" TOTP_AUTH
74110971
51742064
84348069
78844952
28772212

Now you just need to configure OpenSSH to use OTP as part of the authentication process. There are two configuration files to edit. First, you need to edit the /etc/pam.d/sshd config file, and put "auth required pam_google_authenticator.so" at the bottom of the file:

$ sudo vim /etc/pam.d/sshd
(move to the bottom of the file)
auth required pam_google_authenticator.so

Now change the /etc/ssh/sshd_config file, to allow a challenge and response as part of the authentication process:

$ sudo vim /etc/ssh/sshd
ChallengeResponseAuthentication yes

Restart your OpenSSH server, and you should be good to go:

$ sudo service ssh restart

For an OTP application that you can install on your Android phone, I would personally recommend FreeOTP by Red Hat. It's Free and Open Source software, unlike the Google Authenticator app, and it has increased security in that codes are not displayed by default. Instead, you must tap the refresh button for that site to display the code. Also, I like the display options better with FreeOTP than with Authenticator, but that's personal choice. There currently is not an iOS version of the application in the Apple App Store, but my understanding is that one will make it there soon.

Anyway, happy two-factor authentication on your OpenSSH server!

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Robert | January 18, 2016 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    The iOS version of FreeOTP is available at https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/freeotp-authenticator/id872559395?mt=8

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