Using smart cards and hardware tokens with Secure Shell

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This guide explains how to use an OpenPGP-enabled hardware token or smart card for SSH authentication with Secure Shell. Any device with an OpenPGP applet based on the OpenPGP card specification should be supported, which includes at least the following:


  1. Ensure that your smart card/hardware token is properly set up and loaded with at least an authentication key.

    The initial setup cannot be carried out under Chrome OS and does take some time. There are plenty of guides available covering the process, among them the ones by Yubico, ageis and drduh. The key generation part should not depend on the particular brand of smart card or hardware token.

  2. Install the Smart Card Connector app from the Chrome Web Store.

    This app implements the PC/SC API that is used to communicate with the OpenPGP applet. Other apps and extensions can connect to it and request permission to access the card or token, which has to be granted on first use.

  3. Launch Secure Shell, add a new connection to your server and set the SSH relay server options to --ssh-agent=gsc.

    If you want to be able to use the key on the card or token also on the server, you can enable agent forwarding as usual by adding -A to the SSH arguments. Note: Only forward SSH agents to trusted servers.

  4. If ~/.ssh/authorized_keys on your server does not yet contain the public key associated with the authentication key on the card or token, add a new line to it with the key in OpenSSH format.

    Under Linux, you can retrieve the public key in the correct format from the card via:

    $ ssh-add -L
    qQ== cardno:000601234567

    Secure Shell also prints the public keys of all connected cards and tokens to the console when you connect to a server. To see the key, click on ‘Connect’ and wait for an error to be shown because the key has not been added yet. Then, press Ctrl+Shift+J to bring up the developer tools and navigate to the ‘Console’ tab, where the public key will be shown.

  5. Click on ‘Connect’ (or press ‘R’ to reconnect if you already clicked ‘Connect’ in the previous step) and enter your smart card PIN when asked. PIN entry works as in any other terminal (no characters shown while typing, copy & paste supported).

    If you use the smart card SSH agent for the first time, Smart Card Connector will show a dialog asking you whether to grant Secure Shell access to the Smart Card Connector app. Accept and you should get logged in to the server.

Caching the smart card PIN (optional)

After the correct smart card PIN is entered for the first time during an SSH session, the user has the option to cache it. The PIN will remain in the cache until either the SSH session is disconnected or the screen is locked.

As the PIN will not be preserved through reconnects, this feature is mostly meant to make agent forwarding (SSH Arguments: -A) a more pleasant experience. Note however that using agent forwarding with a smart card that does not require physical confirmation for every connection attempt may pose a security risk when connected to a malicious server.

The PIN cache is encrypted with a random WebCrypto AES key that is marked as non-extractable. While this might mean that it cannot be exfiltrated by e.g. an arbitrary read vulnerability on machines with hardware-backed WebCrypto key storage, the nature of JavaScript makes it so that no definite security guarantees can be given. If in doubt, do not use this feature.