So you use keys to SSH between your hosts, and you either have separate keys for each machine you use, or worse you have the same key on each machine. Lets go over why each of those are bad, and lets see how SSH Agent forwarding will help with those issues and make things easier for you in general.
So the key part of why a SSH agent and SSH agent forwarding forwarding is so useful is due to the way keys can be attacked. If I wanted to get your SSH private key I could find some flaw in the system that would give me that /home/you/.ssh/id_rsa file you have. Of course a malicious user with root access to the system could just go in and grab it. You can prevent this kind of attack by setting a passphrase on the key. Of course the root user could replace SSH with a special version designed to get your passphrase, steal the key out of memory or setup a keylogger. This means effectively that your private key is not safe on any system where a person you don’t trust has root access, or has other users and exploitable vulnerabilities.
Single Private Key on Multiple Machines
In this example you’re trusting the security of every single machine you have your private key on. Should it get compromised then you have to revoke you public key from every host, and regenerate private keys to place on every host. Every time you put your private key on a machine you increase the chances that it could be compromised.
Multiple Private Keys On Multiple Machines
So we’re getting a little closer to a good solution. In this instance we don’t have to generate our key and roll it out to all hosts in event of a compromise. You can also have segregate groups, on set of keys for work, another for home and so on. Your keys can still be compromised easily though, and once compromised they can be used until you revoke them manually.
SSH Agent Forwarding
There is a way to keep your key safe from compromise. Now I’ll have to explain how SSH authenticates you using your key. When your authenticating with SSH keys your key isn’t sent, the server sends you some random data and challenges your client to encrypt it with your private key. It then verifies the encrypted data by decrypting it with the public key and checking if it matches the data originally sent. Now the way most people would SSH from the second host to another third host is to utilise a private key on the second host to connect to the third host. Unfortunately this method means that you have to store a key (that is open for compromise) on the second host. SSH agent forwarding tells the SSH client on the second server to send the challenge data through to the SSH client (or ssh agent) on the first host. The agent encrypts the data and sends it via the SSH session to the third client.
The beauty of this method is that the second host never sees a private key, and the challenge data is useless to try and connect to a different host. Even if the second host is compromised there isn’t a private key there to compromise. It should be noted that if the second host is compromised it can still request the agent identify for a different host, or the session to the third host can be taken over. Both these are temporary though and unless the malicious user installs their key (something easy to notice) they cannot get back in.
Diagram detailing how an SSH connection is authenticated using agent forwarding.
If you want to know more about how this works, there is a wonderful tech tip at http://unixwiz.net/techtips/ssh-agent-forwarding.html.
SSH agent forwarding is even easier than copying keys all over the place. The first step is to generate keys for all the machines you log on to directly. You need to be sure these machines are secure and that your keys will stay safe, though this is sometimes not possible. You then add the generated public key to the authorized hosts file of all the machines you will connect to from this one, including ones that take two or more steps to get to. Finally you edit your ~/.ssh/ssh_config file to tell SSH to forward your agent through those hosts. Include the intermediate hosts in this list, but not the endpoints. You could also use SSHmenu to add the arguments automatically to those SSH commands. The following disables forwarding to all hosts, and explicitly enables it to fred, and aaron.missgner.com.
Random thought: Linux has Plug ‘n Pray too, you plug the device in and pray the drivers aren’t proprietary.