If you’re not using ssh-agent to authenticate yourself to SSH servers, you should be. (i’m assuming you’re already using PubkeyAuthentication; if you’re still using PasswordAuthentication, ChallengeResponseAuthentication or KbdInteractiveAuthentication, fix that please).

You should use ssh-agent for a number of reasons, actually, but the simplest is this: when you authenticate to a text-based channel on a remote server, you should never have to type anything about that authentication into the channel that will eventually be controlled by the remote server.

That’s because a malicious server could simply accept your connection as an anonymous connection and print out the exact prompt you’re expecting. Then, whatever you’re typing goes into the remote server instead of into your authentication scheme. and congrats, you just gave away the passphrase for your key.

With ssh-agent, you talk first to your agent. Then, you talk to the server and your ssh client talks to the agent. Your keys and your passphrase are never exposed.

the second reason is that the agent is a much smaller piece of code than the ssh client, and it doesn’t talk to the network at all (unless you force it to). It holds your key and never releases it to querying processes; It even runs in a protected memory space so other processes can’t peek at it.

So if this protected, isolated agent is what holds your key, you’re in much better shape than if a non-protected, larger, network-active process (the ssh client) has direct access to your secret key material.

The third reason is that it’s just more convenient — you can put a key in your agent, and ask it to prompt you when its use is requested. you don’t actually need to re-type your passphrase each time. you can just hit enter or type “yes”.

And if that scares you security-wise then you can put the key in for a limited period of time, as well.

(btw, you should be using the ssh-agent that ships with OpenSSH, probably not the implementation offered by gnome, which doesn’t offer a confirmation prompt, doesn’t run in protected memory space, and links in a ton more libraries)

So how do you use the agent? It’s probably already installed and running on your computer if you run a desktop with debian or another reasonable free operating system.

Query what keys are in your agent:

0 dkg@pip:~$ ssh-add -l
The agent has no identities.
1 dkg@pip:~$ 

Add a standard OpenSSH secret key to your agent, prompting for confirmation before each use:

0 dkg@pip:~$ ssh-add -c ~/.ssh/id_rsa
Enter passphrase for /home/dkg/.ssh/id_rsa: your nice long passphrase here
Identity added: /home/dkg/.ssh/id_rsa (/home/dkg/.ssh/id_rsa)
The user must confirm each use of the key
0 dkg@pip:~$ 

(if you drop the -c, you will not be prompted at each use)Add a standard OpenSSH secret key to your agent, with a lifespan of one hour (3600 seconds)

0 dkg@pip:~$ ssh-add -t 3600 ~/.ssh/id_rsa
Enter passphrase for /home/dkg/.ssh/id_rsa: your nice long passphrase here
Identity added: /home/dkg/.ssh/id_rsa (/home/dkg/.ssh/id_rsa)
Lifetime set to 3600 seconds
0 dkg@pip:~$ 

(note that you can combine the -t $SECONDS and -c flags to get key that is time-constrained and requires a confirmation prompt at each use)Add a monkeysphere-style key (an authentication-capable subkey from your GnuPG secret keyring) to the ssh-agent (this will prompt you for your GnuPG passphrase with a graphical ssh-askpass program during this keyload, if such a program is available), for one hour:

0 dkg@pip:~$ monkeysphere subkey-to-ssh-agent -t 3600
Identity added: Daniel Kahn Gillmor <[email protected]> (Daniel Kahn Gillmor <[email protected]>)
Lifetime set to 3600 seconds
0 dkg@pip:~$ 

If you don’t already have such a subkey, but you want to use the monkeysphere, you’ll need to run monkeysphere gen-subkey to create one first.Note also that you can use both -c and -t $SECONDS with monkeysphere subkey-to-ssh-agent, just like they are used with ssh-add.

Remove all keys from your running agent:

0 dkg@pip:~$ ssh-add -D
All identities removed.
0 dkg@pip:~$ 

I hope this is helpful to people!