Guide to SSH Lockdown

OpenSSH is one of the host heavily-trafficked tools that there is among Linux systems engineers. It is used to hop around, onto and off of servers, to copy files, and even to run commands remotely. It can also be used as a poor man’s VPN. It might be a good idea, then, to pay attention to how we configure it. We might want to lock it down as much as we can.

In this post, we’re going to look at some best practices for using openssh, or just “ssh” from now on. We’re going to look at whether we should allow passwords, how to set up public/private keys, some suggested ciphers and MACs to use, and some other things that relate to ssh. Let’s do it!

Numero uno is going to be setting up public/private key pairs.

SSH Public/Private Key Pairs

I will be talking about two systems here. System A is the system from which you are connecting. System B is the system to which you are connecting. For our purposes, both of these systems are going to be Linux.

I’m not going to cover setting up public/private keys for Windows/putty here (that’s ok because it’s covered in detail many other places). However, if you’re using cygwin on Windows, this process would pretty much still work (the only difference is that the binaries end in “.exe” where they don’t on Linux).

The first thing we are going to do is hop onto System A. We will open a terminal and create our ssh key.

Note: Before you do this, understand that if you already have a public/private ssh key pair created, this command will overwrite them. So if you have some that you don’t want to lose, back up ~/.ssh/id_rsa and ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub.

Now that we are ready to create our key, we’ll run the following command as the user for which you want to create the key:

ssh-keygen -t rsa -b 4096

What does this do? Well, “ssh-keygen” is what’s used to generate the key. We use the “-t” flag to specify the type of key we want to generate. In this case, it’s an RSA key. From the fine manual, we learn that other “possible values are ‘rsa1’ for protocol version 1 and ‘dsa’, ‘ecdsa’, ‘ed25519’, or ‘rsa’ for protocol version 2.” The “-b” flag is used to specify how many bits long we want the key to be. I like to go for a nice, long one. For most situations, 2048 is the usual minimum acceptable length. Going bigger doesn’t hurt anything, though.

When asked for a passphrase, it’s up to you. We like to have as many layers of security as we can. That way, in case one fails, we have other layers that will hopefully save us. Putting a passphrase on your key will give you another layer of security.

Generating a public/private key pair looks something like this:

$ ssh-keygen -t rsa -b 4096
Generating public/private rsa key pair.
Enter file in which to save the key (/home/user/.ssh/id_rsa):
Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase):
Enter same passphrase again:
Your identification has been saved in /home/user/.ssh/id_rsa.
Your public key has been saved in /home/user/.ssh/id_rsa.pub.
The key fingerprint is:
SHA256:zOi7ubCIAg2gorLXYilay263N71VDwwXSWLY01A24Pg user@server.domain.local
The key's randomart image is:
+---[RSA 4096]----+
| o=**. |
|. .+oooo |
|o . o.. |
|+ + . + |
|oo . S E + |
|+ . . . o |
|o..o. .. . . |
|++*ooooo.. |
|=*=ooo=+.. |
+----[SHA256]-----+

Take note of where your key pair has been placed: /home/user/.ssh/id_rsa is your private key and /home/user/.ssh/id_rsa.pub is your public key. Great, we have a key pair. Now what do we do with it? Well, we’re going to put it on System B to allow us to log in.

The easiest way to do this is with a sweet little utility called “ssh-id-copy.” The reason this util rocks is because it sets all of the correct modes on the directory and files once they’re copied to System B. It can totally be done manually, but we’ll look at the automated way, first.

Ok, awesome. We’re going to assume that System B’s hostname is “systemb.”

The automated way is done with this command:

ssh-copy-id systemb

It will prompt you for your password and then copy everything over. After that, it will set the modes for the ~/.ssh/ folder and the file that has been copied into it. At this point, you should be able to ssh from System A to System B using your ssh key and optional passphrase.

Now, let’s walk through the manual steps so you get a better understanding of what is happening.

First, we’ll copy your ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub file over to ‘systemb’:

scp ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub systemb:

Great, our public key is there. Now, we need to head over to System B and place the file in the appropriate location and set some modes.

Head over to System B with:

ssh systemb

Type in your password when prompted. Sweet, we’re on System B, now. Make sure the ~/.ssh/ folder exists:

mkdir -p ~/.ssh/

Then, change the mode of that folder to 700:

chmod 0700 ~/.ssh/

Now, we’re going to put the public key into the ~/.ssh/authorized_keys file:

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

And the final step is to change the mode of the ~/.ssh/authorized_keys file to 600:

chmod 0600 ~/.ssh/authorized_keys

You can go ahead and remove ~/id_rsa.pub, now:

rm ~/id_rsa.pub

Now, log out of System B so that you’re back on System A. Let’s test everything. Try to ssh from System A to System B:

ssh systemb

If you set a passphrase on your key, it will prompt you for that. If not, it should just dump you into a command prompt on System B.

We have now learned how to generate a public/private key pair. We’ve also learned how to place our public key onto other servers so that we can use it to ssh in to said servers. Nice work.

Now, let’s take a look at ways we can lock down the actual ssh daemon running on System B.

Locking Down SSHd

We are going to go over two things here. First, we will disable the use of passwords to log into the system. Then, we’ll lock down the ciphers that are acceptable to use.

Disable Password Authentication

Hop on System B, whether physically, or over ssh (since we can now do that because we’re just cool that way). We’re going to modify the following file:

/etc/sshd/sshd_config

Open this file up in your favorite text editor (bonus points if it’s vim). Find the line that starts with:

PasswordAuthentication

If it says “yes” out to the right, change it to “no”. Save, quit, and restart the ssh service:

systemctl restart sshd

or

service sshd restart

Why disable passwords? Passwords are vulnerable to brute force attacks in a way that our public/private keys are not. Turning off the ability to use passwords, mitigates this avenue of attack. We set up our public/private keys and turn off password authentication, and we should be pretty well off.

Strong Ciphers Only

Now, we’re going to check our ciphers to ensure that we’re only using the strongest ones. In this example, we’re going to make sure that we are not using ‘arcfour.’

Open up your /etc/sshd/sshd_config file again. This time, go all the way to the bottom.  Add the following lines:

Ciphers aes128-ctr,aes192-ctr,aes256-ctr,aes128-cbc,3des-cbc,blowfish-cbc,cast128-cbc,aes192-cbc,aes256-cbc,rijndael-cbc@lysator.liu.se
MACs hmac-sha1,umac-64@openssh.com,hmac-sha2-256,hmac-sha2-512,hmac-ripemd160,hmac-ripemd160@openssh.com

The “Ciphers” information flows onto multiple lines. However, in our sshd_conf file, it should be on the same line. Same with the “MACs” line. It should be all one line in the sshd_conf file.

Once you’ve added those lines, you can save and quit. You are now safe from the dreaded arcfour cipher. If you’d like to read more about this, take a look here:

https://www.ssh.com/ssh/sshd_config/

There’s a lot more great detail on that page about ciphers and some other very useful stuff.

Firewall Rules

No security guide would really be complete without talking about firewall rules. What you should do here is set up a rule that denies everyone access to the sshd port, 22. Then, only add rules to allow connections from machines you trust. Again, it’s another layer of our security. If one fails, we have others to keep us safe.

Speeding Up the Initial Handshake

Here is one more thing I like to set. When ssh connections seem slow, it may be because the sshd on the remote end is trying to do a DNS lookup on the machine connecting to it. Fortunately, we can turn this action off.  This can speed up the initial connection negotiation.

Hop into Server B again. Edit your /etc/ssh/sshd_config file. We’re going to look for and set the following directives to the values I have here:

UseDNS no
GSSAPIAuthentication no

If they’re commented out, uncomment them and set them to these values. Save and restart your ssh daemon.

Disconnect, and then re-connect. Your connection should be nice and snappy.

Well, there are some ways you can lock down your ssh and tune it a bit. Follow these suggestions and you should be in good shape. Peace out.