I spend a lot of time in Terminal connected to remote servers via SSH, I’m by no means an expert and have come across using Key pairs in the past, but never really used them. Until now. It’s really easy to get going signing into servers via SSH just using your local Key. In my case I use a Macbook Pro/Air and a CentOS 5.6 Server, but the fundamentals should be the same for most *Nix platforms.

Using encrypted keys for authentication offers two main benefits. Firstly, it is convenient as you no longer need to enter a password (unless you encrypt your keys with password protection) if you use public/private keys. Secondly, once public/private key pair authentication has been set up on the server, you can disable password authentication completely meaning that without an authorized key you can’t gain access – so no more password cracking attempts.

Open up Terminal on your Mac. You need to create a private and public key, thankfully there is a nice little inbuilt script to do this for you:

$ ssh-keygen -t rsa

This will create two files in your (hidden) ~/.ssh directory called id_rsa and id_rsa.pubid_rsa is your private key and id_rsa.pub is your public key.

If you don’t want to still be asked for a password each time you connect, just press enter when asked for a password when creating the key pair. It is up to you to decide whether or not you should password encrypt your key when you create it. If you don’t password encrypt your key, then anyone gaining access to your local machine will automatically have ssh access to the remote server. Also, root on the local machine has access to your keys although one assumes that if you can’t trust root (or root is compromised) then you’re in real trouble. Encrypting the key adds additional security at the expense of eliminating the need for entering a password for the ssh server only to be replaced with entering a password for the use of the key.

Now set permissions on your private key:

$ chmod 700 ~/.ssh
$ chmod 600 ~/.ssh/id_rsa

Copy the public key (id_rsa.pub) to the server and install it to the authorized_keys list:

$ cat id_rsa.pub >> ~/.ssh/authorized_keys

Note: once you’ve imported the public key, you can delete it from the server.

and finally set file permissions on the server:

$ chmod 700 ~/.ssh
$ chmod 600 ~/.ssh/authorized_keys

The above permissions are required if StrictModes is set to yes in /etc/ssh/sshd_config (the default).

Now when you login to the server you won’t be prompted for a password (unless you entered a password when you created your key pair). By default, ssh will first try to authenticate using keys. If no keys are found or authentication fails, then ssh will fall back to conventional password authentication.

Once you’ve checked you can successfully login to the server using your public/private key pair, you can disable password authentication completely by adding the following setting to your /etc/ssh/sshd_config file:

# Disable password authentication forcing use of keys
PasswordAuthentication no

This is how I did it using a number of different online tutorials the most useful of which was found on the Official CentOS Wiki page here.

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2 thoughts on “Create SSH Keys from your Mac

  • veryhelpful post, but id like to add that the config for ssh is in fact /etc/ssh_config not /etc/ssh/ssh_config


    • Thanks. The path will differ depending on your distribution.


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