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How I secure my setup with a YubiKey

2022-05-07

YubiKeys

I have a pair of YubiKey 5C NFC, which I use for authentication a lot. They’re small USB-C authentication devices which can generate multiple types of keys and are usable for different types of authentication.

A stock photo of the hardware token, which a golden button and a male USB-C port
There's also a USB-A version if USB-C ports aren't your thing.

The keys generated on-device cannot be extracted, which means that the only way to steal the keys is to physically steal the device itself.

This article includes some of the practices I follow and recommend, as well as some warnings of things not to do.

Two factor authentication

The obvious usage is 2FA. On supported websites, when logging in, they’ll prompt me to press the button on the key. This is very simple and convenient to use, and no need to copy numbers from a dedicated hardware device.

A screenshot of Sentry prompting for confirmation on the 2FA device
This is what the 2FA prompt looks like on Sentry.

It’s pretty important to have some for of backup in case the key is lost. In my case, I keep a second off-site. I recommend a similar arrangement whenever possible.

SSH Keys

I use a YubiKey to generate my SSH keys. This has been supported by SSH for a while now (since version 8.2), and they can be generated using:

ssh-keygen -t ed25519-sk -C "A key for some service" -f id_someservice

This generates a key on the YubiKey device itself. The key itself cannot be extracted, but also requires the on-disk file to be used. This means that if someone snatches my YubiKey, they still can’t use my SSH key. And if someone extracts the file from disk, they still need the YubiKey.

Using keys inside the YubiKey also reduces the need for an ssh-agent. The agent mostly keeps the keys in-memory, so one doesn’t have to type the passphrase over and over. Since there’s no passphrase, this is no longer an issue. On top of that, one does have to tap the Yubikey in order to use the keys, so they can’t be used without a manual confirmation (which is just a tap of a button). The tap also cannot be spoofed by someone with remote access to the system. This yields stronger security than a passphrase, and far more convenience.

Of course, if someone extracts the file from disk AND steals the YubiKey, then it’s game over. There are, after all, plenty of scenarios that we just can’t avoid…

Side note

There’s obvious attacks to some of these practices, like “What if the adversary has a forensics lab that can crack a YubiKey?" or “What if an organisation has broken the encryption on the keys?".

Before you start to plan against how you’d prevent the NSA from looking at your email, please keep in mind that they could just as a well buy a wrench:

xkcd 538

Sudo prompts

Typing a user password to sudo is annoying, repetitive and error prone. Instead, I’ve set up sudo to use my YubiKey instead. This is what a sudo prompt looks like:

$ sudo whoami
🔐 Confirm user presence
root

The Confirm user presence prompt indicates that one should press the YubiKey’s button. Note that, in order to even run sudo, one needs to first be logged into an unlocked interactive session, which is something else entirely.

Hint: If you want to set this up, see pam-u2f.

Polkit prompts

I have polkit set up to also prompt with a YubiKey. All the same details apply, but it’s just at GUI prompt rather than a CLI prompt.

System login

My system prompts for a disk decryption password on boot, so getting to a non-root shell requires this passphrase.

There’s nothing crazy and special here, but I do want to point out that logging into the system or unlocking the disk with a hardware key alone is a terrible idea. Imagine you set up your system so that you can log into it with just a hardware key. Now imagine that you’re on vacation in a hotel, and someone bursts in and steals all your electronics. The hardware that’s unlocked and they key will, more often than not, remain physically close.

Imagine like carrying a suitcase with a lock, and having the key for the lock tied to the suitcase. Except that the suitcase has access to all your online accounts, email and banking.

Just don’t. For unlocking the system, a good old passphrase is usually still the best idea. It should be one of the few passwords you need to remember anyway, and it should obviously be unique.

Screen locker

Most of the same arguments above apply to a screen locker. Unlocking the screen requires a password. If the screen locker would somehow crash, then the compositor won’t unlock the screen so no stranger can use the laptop.

Configuring a screen locker to use a YubiKey is also a kinda bad idea. If a random robber were to steal your stuff, they’ll take both things together. You might as well have no screen locker at all.

Again, usually a password or passphrase is best here. If your hardware has reliable fingerprint sensors or alike, that might be a good idea, but it depends a lot on the hardware.

Password Manager

It’s ideal to use a password manager. Too many experts have written on this, so I won’t repeat their points, but mostly summarise:

My advise is to remember the most important passwords (system, email, password manager, etc), and then keep all the rest on a password manager.

Some password manager can be unlocked with a hardware token (e.g.: A YubiKey). I personally don’t use this; I prefer to type the password manager’s main passphrase often. Typing it daily makes sure I won’t forget it.

Summary

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