Secure SSH with Google Authenticator Two-Factor Authentication on CentOS

It’s a good idea to secure the SSH login with a two-factor authentication method. We will show in this article how to secure SSH with Google Authenticator.


  1. Install the Google Authenticator from Google Play
    google authenticator 1


  2. Install the Google Authenticator module:
    [root@cwp1 ~]# yum install google-authenticator
    Loaded plugins: fastestmirror
    Loading mirror speeds from cached hostfile
     * base:
     * epel:
     * extras:
     * updates:
    Resolving Dependencies
    --> Running transaction check
    ---> Package google-authenticator.x86_64 0:1.04-1.el7 will be installed
    --> Finished Dependency Resolution
    Dependencies Resolved
     Package                               Arch                    Version                      Repository             Size
     google-authenticator                  x86_64                  1.04-1.el7                   epel                   48 k
    Transaction Summary
    Install  1 Package
    Total download size: 48 k
    Installed size: 97 k
    Is this ok [y/d/N]: y
    Downloading packages:
    google-authenticator-1.04-1.el7.x86_64.rpm                                                       |  48 kB  00:00:00
    Running transaction check
    Running transaction test
    Transaction test succeeded
    Running transaction
      Installing : google-authenticator-1.04-1.el7.x86_64                                                               1/1
      Verifying  : google-authenticator-1.04-1.el7.x86_64                                                               1/1
      google-authenticator.x86_64 0:1.04-1.el7
    [root@cwp1 ~]#


  3. To configure the google-authenticator module use the google-authenticator command. Read the questions and ask according to your needs:
    [root@cwp1 ~]# google-authenticator
    Do you want authentication tokens to be time-based (y/n) y
    Warning: pasting the following URL into your browser exposes the OTP secret to Google:|0&cht=qr&chl=otpauth://totp/root@cwp1%3Fsecret%3DC5ZIEY5TTOX3UNJXESKISMF2GQ%26issuer%3Dcwp1
    ssh qr code
    Your new secret key is: C5ZIEY5TTOX3UNJXESKISMF2GQ
    Your verification code is 604902
    Your emergency scratch codes are:
    Do you want me to update your "/root/.google_authenticator" file? (y/n) y
    Do you want to disallow multiple uses of the same authentication
    token? This restricts you to one login about every 30s, but it increases
    your chances to notice or even prevent man-in-the-middle attacks (y/n) y
    By default, a new token is generated every 30 seconds by the mobile app.
    In order to compensate for possible time-skew between the client and the server,
    we allow an extra token before and after the current time. This allows for a
    time skew of up to 30 seconds between authentication server and client. If you
    experience problems with poor time synchronization, you can increase the window
    from its default size of 3 permitted codes (one previous code, the current
    code, the next code) to 17 permitted codes (the 8 previous codes, the current
    code, and the 8 next codes). This will permit for a time skew of up to 4 minutes
    between client and server.
    Do you want to do so? (y/n) n
    If the computer that you are logging into isn't hardened against brute-force
    login attempts, you can enable rate-limiting for the authentication module.
    By default, this limits attackers to no more than 3 login attempts every 30s.
    Do you want to enable rate-limiting? (y/n) y
    [root@cwp1 ~]#


  4. Scan the QR code with the Google Authenticator app from your phone:
    google authenticator 2 
  5. Your root@server-name account will be added to Google Authenticator
    google authenticator 3 
  6. Now let’s configure PAM. Edit the file /etc/pam.d/sshd
    [root@cwp1 ~]# nano /etc/pam.d/sshd

    And add the line:

    auth required

    So the top of the file looks like:

    auth required
    auth       required
    auth       substack     password-auth
    auth       include      postlogin


  7. Now we must instruct OpenSSH to permit two-factor authentications. Open the file /etc/ssh/sshd_config :
    [root@cwp1 ~]# nano /etc/ssh/sshd_config

    Add the line (or comment out the line if it already exists):

    ChallengeResponseAuthentication yes


  8. Restart the sshd server:
    [root@cwp1 ~]# service sshd restart
    Redirecting to /bin/systemctl restart  sshd.service
    [root@cwp1 ~]#
    Do NOT close the current SSH connection. Open another SSH connection and check if you are able to connect with the two-factor authentication. If you can’t connect, investigate the cause by checking the SSH log file – /var/log/secure . If you can’t fix the issue, undo the actions from 6.(editing the file /etc/pam.d/sshd) and 7.(editing the file /etc/ssh/sshd_config) to be able to connect only with the password.
  9. Everything is set up at this moment. On the next logins, the system will ask for the verification code.

Related KB articles:
How to install nano editor with yum
Change the default SSH server port number

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