Tip: Single Purpose Password-less SSH Key

Scenario: You need to setup a service that requires ssh access to a remote host, possibly/probably by the root user. This service needs to run at regular intervals and it is critical that it works without a human entering a passphrase (even once).

Solution: The obvious solution that comes to mind is a ssh key. But a password-less key that allows root login? RED FLAG. However, there is a way to accomplish this without allowing a root login completely. That is to create, what I call, a single purpose key. I feel like this not a widely known trick, so I am archiving it so I don’t forget myself.

(Where local host is the host that needs ssh access and remote host is the host that you are “opening” up or allowing ssh access to)

  1. On the local host, create a ssh key without a passphrase for the root user, this is widely documented via other sources
  2. On the remote host, add the key to the /root/.ssh/authorized_keys file. However, start the line in that file with command="/root/bin/validate-ssh.sh"
  3. On the remote host, the /root/bin/validate-ssh.sh script is a simple script that allows access to your service and exits for anything else. An example of allowing rsync access [only]:

    % cat /root/bin/validate-ssh.sh 
        rsync\ --server*)
            # uncomment for debug
            # echo "$(date +%Y%m%d): $SSH_ORIGINAL_COMMAND" >> /var/log/ssh-cmd.log
        # debug
            echo "You successfully connected to $(hostname)"
            echo "Sorry, command '$SSH_ORIGINAL_COMMAND' is not allowed"
            exit 1
  4. Optional, if you only want to allow this access from a small set of hosts add from="," to the same line in /root/.ssh/authorized_keys

So, now, you can use that password-less ssh key as root (assuming the remote host allows root logins via ssh) and you should see something. ssh root@remote testconnect will return that string. rsync root@remote:/file will work. Everything else will get the message that indicates it wasn’t allowed. This is expandable to just about everything provided that you know the “$SSH_ORIGINAL_COMMAND” – on another host I use it to allow password-less sshfs access, so SSH_ORIGINAL_COMMAND=/usr/lib/misc/sftp-server and so-forth.

Naturally, this will work for other users/uses as well. I’ve seen references that some admins are using this to allow access if and only if they enter a sekrit token, etc. I’ll also say that you should be smart with this, opening up root access is a hole – if anyone compromises the local host, I suppose they could get access to the remote host if they knew how.

Jeremy Olexa

Random stuff that I write and make public to the interwebs. I am a tech enthusiast, so some posts are about tech/software. However, as of late, most will be about traveling. I hope you enjoy and find something useful.