Why passwords aren’t always the right answer.

I realised something yesterday. I don’t know my master password.

Users of Mac OS X can use FileVault, a data protection feature that replaces the user’s home folder with an encrypted disk image. Encrypted disk images are protected by AES-128 or AES-256 encryption, but to get at the private key you need to supply one of two pieces of information. The first is the user’s login password, and the second is a private key for a recovery certificate. That private key is stored in a dedicated keychain, which is itself protected by….the master password. More information on the mechanism is available both in Professional Cocoa Application Security and Enterprise Mac.

Anyway, so this password is very useful – any FileVault-enabled home folder can be opened by the holder of the master password. Even if the user has forgotten his login password, has left the company or is being awkward, you can get at the encrypted content. It’s also hardly ever used. In fact, I’ve never used my own master password since I set it – and as a consequence have forgotten it.

There are a few different ways for users to recall passwords – by recital, by muscle memory or by revision. So when you enter the password, you either remember what the characters in the password are, where your hands need to be to type it or you look at the piece of paper/keychain where you wrote it down. Discounting the revision option (the keychain is off the menu, because if you forget your login password you can’t decrypt your login keychain in order to view the recorded password), the only ways to reinforce a password in your memory are to use it. And you never use the FileVault master password.

I submit that as a rarely-used authentication step, the choice of a password to protect FileVault recovery is a particularly bad one. Of course you don’t want attackers able to use the recovery mechanism, but you do want that when you really need to recover your encrypted data, the OS doesn’t keep you out, too.

Integrating SSH with the keychain on Snow Leopard

Not much movement has occurred on projects like SSHKeychain.app or SSHAgent.app in the last couple of years. The reason is that it’s not necessary to use them these days; you can get all of the convenience of keychain-stored SSH passphrases using the built in software. Here’s a guide to using the Keychain to store your pass phrases.

Create the key pair

We’ll use the default key format, which is RSA for SSH protocol 2.0. We definitely want to enter a passphrase, so that if the private key is leaked it cannot be used.

jormungand:~ leeg$ ssh-keygen
Generating public/private rsa key pair.
Enter file in which to save the key (/Users/leeg/.ssh/id_rsa): 
Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase): 
Enter same passphrase again: 
Your identification has been saved in /Users/leeg/.ssh/id_rsa.
Your public key has been saved in /Users/leeg/.ssh/id_rsa.pub.
The key fingerprint is:
ff:ce:0a:f6:ee:0d:e8:a5:aa:56:a0:f3:0b:81:80:cc leeg@jormungand.local
The key's randomart image is:
+--[ RSA 2048]----+
|                 |
|+                |
|oE               |
|..  .            |
|. .. .  S        |
|  o.  .  o       |
|  .o .  + +      |
|   .o  o = =     |
|   .oo..oo=o=    |

If you haven’t seen it before, randomart is not a screenshot from nethack; rather it’s a visual hashing algorithm. Two different public keys are not guaranteed to have different randomart fingerprints, but the chance that they are close enough to pass a quick visual inspection is small.

Deploy the public key to the SSH server

Do this using any available route; I choose to use password-based SSH.

jormungand:~ leeg$ ssh heimdall.local 'cat -  >> .ssh/authorized_keys' < .ssh/id_rsa.pub

There is no step three

Mac OS X automatically runs ssh-agent, the key-caching service, as a launchd agent. When SSH attempts to negotiate authentication using your key-based identity, you automatically get asked whether you want to store the passphrase in the keychain. Like this:


Now the passphrase is stored in the keychain. Don't believe me? Lookie here:


So your SSH key is protected by the passphrase, and the passphrase is protected by the keychain.

Update: Minor caveat

Of course (and I forgot this :-S), if you use FileVault to protect the home folder on the SSH server, the user's home folder isn't mounted until after you authenticate. This means that the authorized_keys file can't be consulted during negotiation. Once you have logged in once (using your password), subsequent logins will use the keys (as PAM automatically mounts the FileVault volumes the first time, so authorized_keys becomes available).