Security keys are now supported for SSH Git operations

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GitHub has been at the forefront of security key adoption for many years. We were an early adopter of Universal 2nd Factor (“U2F”) and were also one of the first sites to transition to Webauthn. We’re always on the lookout for new standards that both increase security and usability. Today we’re taking the next step by shipping support for security keys when using Git over SSH.

What are security keys and how do they work?

Security keys, such as the YubiKey, are portable and transferable between machines in a convenient form factor. Most security keys connect via USB, NFC, or Bluetooth. When used in a web browser with two-factor authentication enabled, security keys provide a strong, convenient, and phishing-proof alternative to one-time passwords provided by applications or SMS. Much of the data on the key is protected from external access and modification, ensuring the secrets cannot be taken from the security key. Security keys should be protected as a credential, so keep track of them and you can be confident that you have usable, strong authentication. As long as you retain access to the security key, you can be confident that it can’t be used by anyone else for any other purpose.

Screenshot of GitHub identity verification screen with security key option

Use your existing security key for Git operations

When used for SSH operations, security keys move the sensitive part of your SSH key from your computer to a secure external security key. SSH keys that are bound to security keys protect you from accidental private key exposure and malware. You perform a gesture, such as a tap on the security key, to indicate when you intend to use the security key to authenticate. This action provides the notion of “user presence.”

Security keys are not limited to a single application, so the same individual security key is available for both web and SSH authentication. You don’t need to acquire a separate security key for each use case. And unlike web authentication, two-factor authentication is not a requirement when using security keys to authenticate to Git. As always, we recommend using a strong password, enrolling in two-factor authentication, and setting up account recovery mechanisms. Conveniently, security keys themselves happen to be a great recovery option for securely retaining access to your two-factor-enabled account if you lose access to your phone and backup codes.

The same SSH keys you already know and love, just a little different

Generating and using security keys for SSH is quite similar to how you generated and used SSH keys in the past. You can password-protect your key and require a security key! According to our data, you likely either use an RSA or ed25519 key. Now you can use two additional key types: ecdsa-sk and ed25519-sk, where the “sk” suffix is short for “security key.”

$ ssh-keygen -t ecdsa-sk -C <email address> 
Generating public/private ecdsa-sk key pair. 
You may need to touch your authenticator to authorize key generation.

Once generated, you add these new keys to your account just like any other SSH key. You’ll still create a public and private key pair, but secret bits are generated and stored in the security key, with the public part stored on your machine like any other SSH public key. There is a private key file stored on your machine, but your private SSH key is a reference to the security key device itself. If your private key file on your computer is stolen, it would be useless without the security key. When using SSH with a security key, none of the sensitive information ever leaves the physical security key device. If you’re the only person with physical access to your security key, it’s safe to leave plugged in at all times.

Screenshot of SSH keys associated with GitHub user account

Safer Git access and key management

With security keys, you can achieve a higher level of account security and protection from account takeover. You can take things a step further by removing your previously registered SSH keys, using only SSH keys backed by security keys. Using only SSH keys backed by security keys gives you strong assurance that you are the only person pulling your Git data via SSH as long as you keep the security key safe like any other private key.

Security keys provide meaningful safety assurances even if you only access Git on trusted, consistent systems. At the other end of the spectrum, you might find yourself working in numerous unfamiliar environments where you need to perform Git operations. Security keys dramatically reduce the impact of inadvertent exposure without the need to manage each SSH key on your account carefully. You can confidently generate and leave SSH keys on any system for any length of time and not have to worry about removing access later. We’ll remove unused keys from your account, making key management even easier. Remember to periodically use keys you want to retain over time so we don’t delete them for you.

Protecting against unintended operations

Every remote Git operation will require an additional key tap to ensure that malware cannot initiate requests without your approval. You can still perform local operations, such as checkout, branch, and merge, without interruption. When you’re happy with your code or ready to receive updates, remote operations like push, fetch, and pull will require that you tap your security key before continuing. As always, SSH keys must be present and optionally unlocked with a password for all Git operations. Unlike password-protected SSH keys, clients do not cache security key taps for multiple operations.

$ git clone
Cloning into 'secure_headers'...
Confirm user presence for key ECDSA-SK SHA256:xzg6NAJDyJB1ptnbRNy8UxD6mdm7J/YBdu2p5+fCUa0
User presence confirmed

Already familiar with using SSH keys backed by security keys? In that case, you might wonder why we require verification (via the security key “tap”) when you can configure your security key to allow operations to proceed as long as the security key is present. While we understand the appeal of removing the need for the taps, we determined our current approach to require presence and intention is the best balance between usability and security.

Towards a future with fewer passwords

Today, you can use a password, a personal access token (PAT), or an SSH key to access Git at GitHub. Later this year, as we continue to iterate toward more secure authentication patterns, passwords will no longer be supported for Git operations. We recognize that passwords are convenient, but they are a consistent source of account security challenges. We believe passwords represent the present and past, but not the future. We would rather invest in alternatives, like our Personal Access Tokens, by adding features such as fine-grained access and more control over expiration. It’s a long journey, but every effort to reduce the use of passwords has improved the security of the entire GitHub ecosystem.

By removing password support for Git, as we already successfully did for our API, we will raise the baseline security hygiene for every user and organization, and for the resulting software supply chain. By adding SSH security key support, we have provided a new, more secure, and easy-to-use way to strongly authenticate with Git while preventing unintended and potentially malicious access. If you are ready to make the switch, log in to your account and follow the instructions in our documentation to create a new key and add it to your account.

We wanted to extend our gratitude to Yubico, with whom we’ve partnered several times over the years, for being an early collaborator with us on this feature and providing us valuable feedback to ensure we continue to improve developer security.