Generating SSH keys

SSH (Secure SHell) keys are pairs of small text files that are used to securely identify users and give them access to remote servers, e.g. when transferring data via SFTP. SSH keys use public-key encryption and always come in pairs: a public and a private (or secret) key.

  • Public key: the public key of an SSH key pair is meant to be placed on the remote machine to which a user wants to connect. Public keys are non-sensitive, and are typically shared by users with system administrators, who will place them on the machine to which the user is granted access.
  • Private key: the private key of an SSH key pair is what uniquely identifies a user as the legitimate owner of a public key. In other words, having the private key that matches a given public key will give access to any machine on which a copy of public key is stored. Private SSH keys are sensitive information: they must be kept private at all times and should never be shared with anyone - not even your system administrator. Private keys can (and should) be protected by a password, so that even if someone else has access to them, they remain unusable.

Generating a new pair of SSH keys must be done only once, and, in the context of sett, is only needed if you intend to transfer data. If you are a user who only decrypts data, you do not need an SSH key. Also, do not confuse SSH keys - used to identify yourself on a remote server - with PGP keys - used to encrypt and sign data.

To generate a new SSH key pair, type the command below in your terminal (Linux and Mac) or PowerShell (windows users - to start it, search for “powershell” in the Start menu). Note that you must replace “alice@example.org” with your own email. This will generate an SSH key pair using the “ed25519” algorithm, currently the most secure public-key algorithm:

ssh-keygen -a 100 -t ed25519 -C "alice@example.org"

Windows users who do not have the ssh-keygen command installed, please see Windows users: enabling the ssh-keygen command below.

When executing the ssh-keygen command above, you will be prompted for the following information:

  1. The name and location where to save the newly created keys. Here you should simply accept the default values by not entering anything and pressing “Enter” on your keyboard. Default locations are ~/.ssh/id_ed25519 on Linux and MaxOS, and C:\Users\<user name>\.ssh\id_ed25519 on Windows.
  2. A password to protect your private SSH key against illegitimate use. Please select a password that is long enough (>=12 characters) and composed only of ASCII characters.

When the command completes, two new files are produced: id_ed25519.pub (the public key) and id_ed25519 (the private key).

Warning

Remember that the file containing the private key - id_ed25519 - must be kept private. Never share it with anyone, not even your system administrator.

On Linux and MacOS systems, after the public key is generated, its permissions must be changed with the following command (this step is not needed for Windows users):

chmod 600 ~/.ssh/id_ed25519.pub

Windows users: enabling the ssh-keygen command

Not all versions of windows come with the ssh-keygen command pre-installed. If this command is unavailable on your machine, please install it as follows:

  1. Open the windows settings (shortcut: windows key + i).
  2. Search for, and select, “Add an optional feature”.
  3. Click on “Add a feature”.
  4. Search for, and select, “Open SSH Client”.
  5. Click “Install”.
  6. Restart your computer.