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How to Set Up SSH Keys on Debian 9

Secure Shell (SSH) is a cryptographic network protocol used for secure connection between a client and a server and supports various authentication mechanisms.

The two most popular mechanisms are passwords based authentication and public key based authentication. Using SSH keys is more secure and convenient than traditional password authentication.

In this tutorial we will describe how to generate SSH keys on Debian 9 systems. We will also show you how to setup a SSH key-based authentication and connect to your remote Linux servers without entering a password.

Creating SSH keys on Debian

Before generating a new SSH key pair, first check for existing SSH keys on your Debian client machine. You can do that by running the following command:

ls -l ~/.ssh/id_*.pub

If the output of the command above contains something like No such file or directory or no matches found it means that you don’t have SSH keys and you can continue with the next step and generate a new SSH key pair.

If there are existing keys, you can either use those and skip the next step or backup up the old keys and generate new ones.

Start by generating a new 4096 bits SSH key pair with your email address as a comment using the following command:

ssh-keygen -t rsa -b 4096 -C "[email protected]"

The output will look similar to the following:

Enter file in which to save the key (/home/yourusername/.ssh/id_rsa):

Press Enter to accept the default file location and file name.

Next, you’ll be prompted to type a secure passphrase. Whether you want to use passphrase its up to you. With passphrase, an extra layer of security is added to your key.

Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase):

If you don’t want to use passphrase just press Enter

The whole interaction looks like this:

To verify that the SSH key pair was generated, type:

ls ~/.ssh/id_*

The output should look something like this:

/home/yourusername/.ssh/id_rsa /home/yourusername/.ssh/id_rsa.pub

Copy the Public Key to the Server

Now that you have your SSH key pair, the next step is to copy the public key to the server you want to manage.

The easiest and the recommended way to copy the public key to the remote server is to use the ssh-copy-id tool.

On your local machine terminal tun the following command:

ssh-copy-id [email protected]_ip_address

You will be prompted to enter the remoteusername password:

[email protected]_ip_address's password:

Once the user is authenticated, the public key ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub will be appended to the remote user ~/.ssh/authorized_keys file and connection will be closed.

Number of key(s) added: 1

Now try logging into the machine, with:   "ssh '[email protected]_ip_address'"
and check to make sure that only the key(s) you wanted were added.

If the ssh-copy-id utility is not available on your local computer you can use the following command to copy the public key:

cat ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub | ssh [email protected]_ip_address "mkdir -p ~/.ssh && cat >> ~/.ssh/authorized_keys"

Login to the Server using SSH Keys

At this point you should be able login to the remote server without being prompted for a password.

To test it, try to connect to the server via SSH:

ssh [email protected]_ip_address

If you haven’t set a passphrase, you will be logged in immediately. Otherwise you will be prompted to enter the passphrase.

Disabling SSH Password Authentication

To add an extra layer of security to your server you can disable the password authentication for SSH.

Before disabling SSH password authentication make sure you can login to your server without a password and the user you are logging in with has sudo privileges.

Log into your remote server:

ssh [email protected]_ip_address

Open the SSH configuration file /etc/ssh/sshd_config:

sudo nano /etc/ssh/sshd_config

Search for the following directives and modify as it follows:

/etc/ssh/sshd_config
PasswordAuthentication no
ChallengeResponseAuthentication no
UsePAM no

Once you are done save the file and restart the SSH service using the following command:

sudo systemctl restart ssh

At this point, the password based authentication is disabled.

Conclusion

In this tutorial you have learned how to generate a new SSH key pair and setup a SSH key-based authentication. You can add the same key to multiple remote serves.

We have also shown you how to disable SSH password authentication and add an extra layer of security to your server.

If you have any question or feedback feel free to leave a comment.