Erle Robotics Python Networking Gitbook Free

SSH Host Keys

When an SSH client first connects to a remote host, they exchange temporary public keys that let them encrypt the rest of their conversation without revealing any information to any watching third parties. Then, before the client is willing to divulge any further information, it demands proof of the remote server's identity. This makes good sense as a first step: if you are really talking to a hacker who has temporarily managed to grab the remote server's IP, you do not want SSH to divulge even your username—much less your password.

There are many problems with this system from the point of view of SSH. While it is true that you can build a public-key infrastructure internal to an organization, where you distribute your own signing authority's certificates to your web browsers or other applications and then can sign your own server certificates without paying a third party, a public-key infrastructure is still considered too cumbersome a process for something like SSH; server administrators want to set up, use, and tear down servers all the time, without having to talk to a central authority first.

So SSH has the idea that each server, when installed, creates its own random public-private key pair that is not signed by anybody. Instead, one of two approaches is taken to key distribution:

  • A system administrator writes a script that gathers up all of the host public keys in an organization, creates an ssh_known_hosts listing them all, and places this file in the /etc/sshd directory on every system in the organization. Now every SSH client will know about every SSH host key before they even connect for the first time.
  • Abandon the idea of knowing host keys ahead of time, and instead memorize them at the moment of first connection. Users of the SSH command line will be very familiar with this: the client says it does not recognize the host to which you are connecting, you reflexively answer “yes,” and its key gets stored in your "~/.ssh/known_hosts" file. You actually have no guarantee that you are really talking to the host you think it is; but at least you will be guaranteed that every subsequent connection you ever make to that machine is going to the right place, and not to other servers that someone is swapping into place at the same IP address.

The familiar prompt from the SSH command line when it sees an unfamiliar host looks like this:

[email protected]:~# ssh
The authenticity of host ' ('
can't be established.
RSA key fingerprint is 85:8f:32:4e:ac:1f:e9:bc:35:58:c1:d4:25:e3:c7:8c.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)? yes
Warning: Permanently added ',' (RSA)
to the list of known hosts.

That “yes” answer buried deep on the next-to-last full line is the answer that I typed giving SSH the go-ahead to make the connection and remember the key for next time.

The paramiko library has full support for all of the normal SSH tactics surrounding host keys. But its default behavior is rather spare: it loads no host-key files by default, and will then, of course, raise an exception for the very first host to which you connect because it will not be able to verify its key. The exception that it raises is a bit un-informative; it is only by looking at the fact that it comes from inside the missing_host_key() function that I usually recognize what has caused the error.(Before doing this, install paramiko module from Python Package Index):

>>> import paramiko
>>> client = paramiko.SSHClient()
>>> client.connect('', username='test')
Traceback (most recent call last):
File ".../paramiko/", line 85, in missing_host_key
» raise SSHException('Unknown server %s' % hostname)
paramiko.SSHException: Unknown server

To behave like the normal SSH command, load both the system and the current user's known-host keys before making the connection:

>>> client.load_system_host_keys()
>>> client.load_host_keys('/home/brandon/.ssh/known_hosts')
>>> client.connect('', username='test')

The paramiko library also lets you choose how you handle unknown hosts. Once you have a client object created, you can provide it with a decision-making class that is asked what to do if a host key is not recognized. You can build these classes yourself by inheriting from the MissingHostKeyPolicy class:

>>> class AllowAnythingPolicy(paramiko.MissingHostKeyPolicy):
... def missing_host_key(self, client, hostname, key):
... return
>>> client.set_missing_host_key_policy(AllowAnythingPolicy())
>>> client.connect('', username='test')

Note that, through the arguments to the missing_host_key() method, you receive several pieces of information on which to base your decision; you could, for example, allow connections to machines on your own server subnet without a host key, but disallow all others.

Inside paramiko there are also several decision-making classes that already implement several basic host-key options:

  • paramiko.AutoAddPolicy: Host keys are automatically added to your user host-key store (the file ~/.ssh/known_hosts on Unix systems) when first encountered, but any change in the host key from then on will raise a fatal exception.
  • paramiko.RejectPolicy: Connecting to hosts with unknown keys simply raises an exception.
  • paramiko.WarningPolicy: An unknown host causes a warning to be logged, but the connection is then allowed to proceed.

The AutoAddPolicy never needs human interaction, but will at least assure you on subsequent encounters that you are still talking to the same machine as before.