How to Use Public Key Authentication – A Complete Guide

How to Use Public Key Authentication – A Complete Guide

One of the most important aspects of SSH is Public Key authentication, which is used for both interactive and automated connections.

Secure Shell (SSH) is a cryptographic network protocol that allows two networked computers to communicate securely with one another.

Asymmetric cryptography is utilized in SSH public key authentication, which consists of a public and a private key.

In this blog, let’s look at the specifics of SSH public key authentication, SSH specify key, and its critical function in public key authentication.

Understanding SSH Public Key Authentication

Secure Shell (SSH) is a cryptographic network protocol that allows two networked devices to communicate securely.

SSH public key authentication is built on asymmetric cryptography, which uses two SSH keys—a public key and a private key.

The public key is freely circulated, but the user retains control over their private key. This solution improves security by eliminating the need for passwords and providing a more secure authentication system.

Here’s how it works:

Key Generation

  • You use your local computer to generate a public and private key. You have only these keys.
  • The private key is securely stored on your local computer, while the public key is stored on the server or device to which you want to connect.

Authentication Process

  • When you attempt to connect to the server or device, your local SSH client sends your public key to the server.
  • Next, the server checks to verify if this public key matches any authorized keys that are on file.
  • If there’s a match, the server sends a challenge to your SSH client, which it can only answer correctly if it has the corresponding private key.
  • By using your private key to solve the challenge, your SSH client confirms that it has the correct key.
  • If successful, the server grants access without requiring a password.
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Advantages of SSH Public Key Authentication

The use of SSH Public Key Authentication has several advantages:

  • Enhanced Security: When compared to password-based authentication, SSH Public Key Authentication is a more secure authentication method. Asymmetric cryptography prevents unauthorized access by ensuring that the private key cannot be retrieved even if the public key is intercepted.
  • Elimination of Passwords: With SSH Public Key Authentication, there is no need to transmit passwords over the network, reducing the risk of password interception and brute-force attacks. This eliminates the vulnerability that comes with password-based authentication.
  • Ease of Use: Once SSH Public Key Authentication is set up, users can seamlessly authenticate to remote servers without entering passwords. This improves user experience and simplifies authentication, especially in environments with multiple servers or frequent logins.
  • Granular Access Control: System administrators can manage access more granularly by distributing different public keys to different users or groups. This allows for fine-tuning access permissions based on roles and responsibilities within an organization, enhancing overall security posture.
  • Compatibility with Automation: SSH Public Key Authentication is compatible with automation tools and scripts, allowing for secure authentication in automated processes without human intervention. It is, therefore, perfect for use in automated processes such as DevOps.
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Implementing SSH Public Key Authentication

Implementing SSH Public Key Authentication involves several steps:

1. Key Pair Generation

SSH client software, such as OpenSSH or PuTTY, facilitates the generation of key pairs on the client side. This process typically involves the following steps:

  • Open Terminal or SSH Client: Launch your terminal application or SSH client on your local machine.
  • Generate Key Pair: Utilise the necessary tool or command to form a key pair. You can use the ssh-keygen program for OpenSSH. SSH specifies the key (e.g., RSA, DSA, ECDSA, ED25519) and optionally provides a passphrase for added security.
  • Save Keys: After generating the key pair, the private key will be saved on your local machine, usually in the .ssh directory. The public key will also be generated and displayed in the terminal or saved to a file.

2. Deployment of Public Key

Once the key pair is generated, the next step is to deploy the public key to the servers or devices that you intend to access. This process varies depending on the server’s configuration and access method:

  • Manual Deployment: You can manually copy the contents of the public key (usually stored in a file named or similar) to the appropriate location on the server. The public key is often stored in the authorized_keys file in the user’s home directory within the server .ssh directory.
  • SSH Copy: Alternatively, you can use the ssh-copy-id command to transmit your public key to the server automatically. This command securely copies the public key to the server’s authorized_keys file, saving you the manual effort.

3. Authentication Process

Once the public key is deployed to the server, you can authenticate securely using your private key. The authentication procedure usually includes the following steps:

  • Initiate Connection: Use your SSH client software to connect to the server.
  • Provide Private Key: During connection, your SSH client automatically presents your private key to the server.
  • Server Authentication: By comparing your private key to the corresponding public key in the authorized_keys file, the server verifies the authenticity of your key.
  • Access Granted: If the private key is successfully authenticated, the server grants you access without a password, providing a seamless and secure access experience.


Cybersecurity threats are ever-present!

SSH client software is crucial in enabling and facilitating public key authentication and ensuring secure access to remote systems.

By embracing technologies like SSH public key authentication and leveraging robust SSH clients, organizations can fortify their digital defenses and confidently navigate the complex landscape of cybersecurity.