I often have to ask other IT professionals for the Public SSH key for access to a server or for other tasks. I really cringe when they ask me what that is or how to create one. I kindof cringe when they give me one from PuttyGen in its native format. I feel a little better when they provide a 4096-bit RSA key without needing an explanation. When somebody provides an Ed25519 key, I feel like I’m working with somebody who knows what they are doing.
A 4096-bit RSA Keys look like this:
ssh-rsa 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 someuser@brandonsLaptop
And for comparison, an Ed25519 Key looks like this:
ssh-ed25519 AAAAC3NzaC1lZDI1NTE5AAAAIBLEURucCueNvq4hPRklEMHdt5tj/bSbirlC0BkXrPDI someuser@ip-172-31-74-201
The Ed25519 key is much shorter, so initially you might think it is less secure. But these keys use a totally different algorithm, so although the key has fewer characters, it is, for all practical purposes, as secure as the RSA key above. You can ask your favorite search engine or AI for more details about the differences.
The Ed25519 algorithm has been around for ~10 years now. It is widely supported by any modern software, and as such is the current standard for most professional users. Creating a key is simple with the ssh-keygen command. But before jumping to the actual command, I wanted to also explain a couple other tips that I use, and think others should pick up as well.
Keys should be issued to individuals, not groups
You should never, ever share your private key with anybody. Ever. If a key is ever shared, you have to assume that the other party can impersonate you on any system in which it is used.
I’ve seen some organizations who create a new machine and use a new SSH Key on it. Then share the key with all of the individuals who need to access the machine. Perhaps this practice comes from AWS or other hosting providers who create an SSH key for you, along with a new machine, and the user not knowing any better.
Although it kindof works, that’s the backwards way of doing it. Individuals should own their own keys. They should be private. And you can add multiple public keys to resources where multiple people need access. You then revoke access by removing the public key, instead of having to re-issue a new key whenever the group changes. (Or worse, not changing the key at all!)
Rotating your keys
You should rotate your SSH keys on some kind of schedule. The main risk you are trying to avoid here is that if you have used the same key for 20 years, and then your laptop with your private key gets lost, or your key compromised, every machine that you’ve been granted access to over that time is potentially at risk, because administrators are notoriously bad about revoking access. By changing out your key regularly, you limit the potential access in the case of a compromised key. Generating a new SSH key also ensures that you are using more modern algorithms and key sizes.
I like to start a new key about every year. To remind my self to do this, I embed the year I created the key within its name. So I last created a key in March 2023, which I have named brandon+2022-03@roundsphere. When it gets to be 2024, I’ll be subtly reminded each time I use it that it’s time to create a new key. I keep all of my older keys if I need them. But they aren’t in memory or in my SSH-Agent. If I do need to use one, it is enough of a process to find the old one, that the first thing I’ll do is update my key as soon as I get in a system where an old key was needed.
Don’t use the default comment
Make the comment meaningful. If you don’t provide a comment, it defaults to your_username@you_machine name which just might be silly or meaningless. In a professional setting, it should clearly identify you. For example BrandonChecketts as a comment is better than me00101@billys2017_macbook_air. It should be meaningful both to you, and to whomever you are sharing it.
I mentioned including the creation month above, which I like because when sharing it, it subtly demonstrates that I am at least somewhat security conscious and I know what I’m doing. The comment at the end of the key isn’t necessary for the key to work correctly, so you can change it when sharing it. I often change the comment to be more meaningful if someone provides me with a key that doesn’t clearly indicate its owner.
Always use a passphrase
Your SSH key is just a tiny file on disk. If your machine is ever lost, stolen, or compromised in any way by an attacker, the file is pretty easy for them to copy. Without it being encrypted with a pass phrase, it is directly usable. And if someone has access to your SSH private key, they probably have access to your history and would know where to use it.
As such, it is important to protect your SSH private key with a decent pass phrase. Note that you can use SSH-Agent so you don’t need to type the passphrase every time you need to use the key.
This is the command you should use to create your ED25519 Key:
ssh-keygen -t ed25519 -f ~/.ssh/your-key-filename -C "your-key-comment"
That will ask you for a pass phrase and then show you a cool randomart image that represents your public key when it is created
$ ssh-keygen -t ed25519 -f ./deleteme -C "brandon+2023-09@roundsphere" Generating public/private ed25519 key pair. Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase): Enter same passphrase again: Your identification has been saved in ./deleteme Your public key has been saved in ./deleteme.pub The key fingerprint is: SHA256:HiCF8gbV6DpBTC2rq2IMudwAc5+QuB9NqeGtc3pmqEY brandon+2023-09@roundsphere The key's randomart image is: +--[ED25519 256]--+ | o.o.+. | | * +.. | | o O... | |+ B *. . | |.B % . S | |=E* = . . | |=+o= . | |+==.= | |B..B | +----[SHA256]-----+
I maybe have spent 10 minutes creating a key over an over until I found a key that ended in a few character that I like. One of my keys ends in 7srus, so I think of it as my “7’s ‘R’ Us” key. You can do that over and over again until you find a key that you like with this one-liner:
rm newkey; rm newkey.pub; ssh-keygen -t ed25519 -f ./newkey -C "firstname.lastname@example.org" -N ''; cat newkey.pub;
That creates a key without a passphrase, so you can do it over and over quickly until you find a public key that you “like”. Then protect it with a passphrase with the command
ssh-keygen -p -f newkey
And obviously, then you rename it from newkey to something more meaningful.
What else? Any other tips for creating an SSH key and looking like a professional in 20223?