SSH-keys are the most common way to connect to a server securely and in an effortless way. A good practice is to protect the keys with a long-enough passphrase. Since it can be painful to type it every time one wants to login to a server, ssh-agent is often used to bypass this. But this can be a security caveat, since any malware or anybody who can access the laptop can then use the ssh-key to connect to servers.

A good way to prevent this from happening is to use KeePassXC to manage your ssh-keys. KeePassXC is a password manager, forked from KeepassX, itself a Linux port of KeePass. KeePassXC is well maintained, and we can take advantage of the new features built inside ! KeePassXC can now store ssh-keys and associated passphrase, and add them into ssh-agent, allowing SSH connection using public key authentication. It can also unload keys from ssh-agent when the lid is closed, the screen is locked, or in case of prolonged inactivity. And display a confirmation dialog whenever the key is acceded !

Generate a key pair

If you don’t already own a pair of keys, you can use ssh-keygen to get new ones.

$ ssh-keygen -b 4096
Generating public/private rsa key pair.
Enter file in which to save the key (/Users/valouille/.ssh/id_rsa):
/Users/valouille/.ssh/id_rsa already exists.
Overwrite (y/n)? y
Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase):
Enter same passphrase again:
Your identification has been saved in /Users/valouille/.ssh/id_rsa.
Your public key has been saved in /Users/valouille/.ssh/id_rsa.pub.
The key fingerprint is:
SHA256:PGfu6mBVTSTXxMAHx0odNltC8Z0LU61N/xwa+GPgM/M valouille@Valintosh
The key's randomart image is:
+---[RSA 4096]----+
|          .o*XX+o|
|           =ooB*=|
|          ..o=.=+|
|       . . o..+.+|
|        S + o ooo|
|       . = = =  o|
|      o   . * .  |
|     . . .   E   |
|       .o..      |
+----[SHA256]-----+

In this case, I create a 4096 bits RSA key. To be able to login as valouille to my server, I add the content of the public key /Users/valouille/.ssh/id_rsa.pub inside the /home/valouille/.ssh/authorized_keys file.

For now, if I try to connect to my server, I’ll be prompted to write down my passphrase to unlock the key. Nothing really new here.

Enable ssh-agent integration within KeePassXC

In KeePassXC Settings, the checkbox Enable SSH Agent from the SSH Agent category must be selected. (A restart of KeePassXC is required)

Enabling ssh agent integration

Enabling ssh agent integration

Add the key to KeePassXC

After creating a database, we can then add a new entry for the ssh-key :

The fields Password & Repeat are to be filled with the passphrase. Then, we switch to the SSH Agent category :

The first two checkboxes enable the ssh-agent integration functionality, and the third the dialog window that appears each time the key is used.

From now, ssh-agent should have the key loaded :

$ ssh-add -l
4096 SHA256:PGfu6mBVTSTXxMAHx0odNltC8Z0LU61N/xwa+GPgM/M  (RSA)

I should be able to login without entering the passphrase, but since I want a dialog window to prompt me whenever my key is used, a few more steps are needed (at least with macOS)

Making the confirmation dialog window work !

By default, macOS’s SSH doesn’t ships with an askpass program (like ssh-askpass). This is a pre-requisite for this feature to work. Until then, we get the following error message :

$ ssh valouille@server.valouille.fr
sign_and_send_pubkey: signing failed: agent refused operation
valouille@server.valouille.fr: Permission denied (publickey).

You can use the following commands to install ssh-askpass :

git clone https://github.com/theseal/ssh-askpass.git
sudo cp ssh-askpass /usr/local/bin/
cp ssh-askpass.plist ~/Library/LaunchAgents/

You’ll then need to logout and re-login to enable it.

Once done, when the KeePassXC password database is unlocked, you should be able to login effortlessly :

$ ssh server.valouille.fr
Prompt to authorize the use of the ssh-key

Prompt to authorize the use of the ssh-key

Linux server #1 SMP Debian

The programs included with the Debian GNU/Linux system are free software;
the exact distribution terms for each program are described in the
individual files in /usr/share/doc/*/copyright.

Debian GNU/Linux comes with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY, to the extent
permitted by applicable law.
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To make it easier to validate the dialog window, don’t forget to enable the keyboard control from System PreferencesKeyboardShortcutsFull Keyboard Access… (at the bottom) → All Controls