HOWTO OpenSSH 2FA with password and Google Authenticator

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The following will allow you to setup the OpenSSH ssh server to use two factor authentication consisting of the user's password and a Time-based One Time Password (TOTP).

In order to facilitate this, you will need to add the required APKs, configure the OpenSSH server, configure the google-authenticator PAM module, restart the OpenSSH server, and setup google-authenticator per user.

Required APKs

Main repository:

Community repository:

Documentation (optional):

To pull in all apks in one shot:

# apk add openssh openssh-server-pam google-authenticator openssh-doc google-authenticator-doc

Configure the OpenSSH server

Note: This article assumes that you have already done basic setup of OpenSSH relying on username and password to login... Please see the article Setting up a SSH server if you have not done so

Use sudo, su, or doas to elevate your preferred text editor to root privileges, and then edit the /etc/ssh/sshd_config file. There are three directives which need to be altered or added if not present:

PasswordAuthentication no
AuthenticationMethods keyboard-interactive
UsePAM yes

Please consult the sshd_config manpage, particularly the AuthenticationMethods directive, if you would like to use public key authentication.

Configure the google-authenticator PAM module

As root, create the /etc/pam.d/sshd file and create a link to it called /etc/pam.d/sshd.pam:

# touch /etc/pam.d/sshd # ln /etc/pam.d/sshd /etc/pam.d/sshd.pam

Elevate your preferred text editor to root and edit the /etc/pam.d/sshd file, it will contain the following lines at a minimum:

auth            required
auth            required  successok
auth            required       echo_verification_code grace_period=57600 nullok
auth            required      sha512
account         include         base-account
password        include         base-password
session         include         base-session

In the example above, we are passing a few useful options to the google authenticator pam module:

echo_verification_code Allows the user to see their verification code as they type it, reducing the chance it is entered incorrectly.
grace_period=57600 Defines a grace period in seconds during which a user login attempt from the same IP address will not be asked for the verification code.
nullok This option is recommended during the initial roll-out process of google authenticator on your server, it allows users who have not created a secret key to bypass the verification code prompt. It is recommended you remove this option after all of your users have created secret keys.

More options can be found in the google-authenticator manpage or on their github.

Restart the SSH server

In order for the changes above to take effect, run as the root user:

# service sshd restart

Tip: If you are logged into your system remotely, restarting sshd will not kill your current connection.

This is very useful because you can restart sshd and open an additional connection to test config changes, if you make a typo error, you can use the first connection to make corrections or revert changes to get sshd running again.

Before proceeding further, take the time to ensure your sshd is allowing you to log in with your username/password without TOTP as usual and fix any issues.

Setup google-authenticator per user

Instruct all users whom you wish to use the one time passes to login to their account and run the google-authenticator command to setup their secrets.

They will type the OTP secret generated into their authenticator app and hand write their 5 scratch codes to store in a secure location.

The command output will look something like this:

$ 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:
Failed to use libqrencode to show QR code visually for scanning.
Consider typing the OTP secret into your app manually.
Your new secret key is: 
Ender code from app (-1 to skip):
Your emergency scratch codes are:

Do you want me to update your "/home/$USER/.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, bit 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) n

You will want to answer y to the first two questions.

The remaining questions are personal preference, I typically answer y n n, my rationale for doing so:

I disallow multiple uses of authentication tokens on boxes in which the grace_period option above is set above 60 seconds.

I cannot think of any machines I deal with which are not NTP (clock sync) enabled, so I do not enable time-skew compensation.

I do not enable rate-limiting as the sshd and firewall should take care of that.