It could be said that SSH (Secure Shell) is an administrator’s most important and most frequently used tool. SSH uses public-key cryptography to establish a secure communication channel. The public/private keypair is either
- generated automatically, where the (typed or copy-pasted) plaintext password is transmitted over the encrypted channel to authenticate the user, or
- generated manually once, where the private key is permanently stored on the client and the public key is permanently stored on the server. This method also authenticates the user at the same time without submitting a password.
Even if it may have been secure in the 2000’s, the first method (typing or copy-pasting the plaintext password) really has become insecure for the following possible side-channel attacks belonging to the category of Keystroke logging:
- Security Vulnerabilities in Wireless Keyboards
- Keystroke Recognition from Wi-Fi Distortion
- Snooping on Text by Listening to the Keyboard
- Sniffing Keyboard Keystrokes with a Laser
- Hacking Your Computer Monitor
- Guessing Smart Phone PINs by Monitoring the Accelerometer
- more to be discovered!
Using the clipboard for copy-pasting is not really an option either because the clipboard is simply public storage. In short, using passwords, even ‘complicated’ ones, is really a bad idea.
The second method (a manually generated public/private keypair) is much more secure:
- The private key (the secret) on the client is never transmitted (I know, public key cryptography sounds like black magic, but it isn’t)
- You still can use a “passphrase” to additionally encrypt the private key. This would protect the key in case it is stolen. This “passphrase” doesn’t have to be stored anywhere, it can be simply remembered like a conventional password.
- “Mathematics can’t be bribed”: If every Hydrogen atom in the univerese were a CPU and able to enumerate 1000 RSA moduli per second, it would still take approx. 6 x 10211 years to enumerate all moduli to bruteforce a 1024-bit RSA key.[^1]
There is no earthly agancy which can “hack” strong and proper cryptography, even if they claim that they can. There is a theoretical lower limit of energy consumption of computation. See Landauer’s principle for regular computing and Margolus–Levitin theorem for quantum computing.
Nothing in the world of cryptography is ‘cut and dried’, but there are certain best practices we as administrators can adopt. Using SSH keys properly is certainly one of these practices.