When using Git over SSH, GitHub, the ubiquitous host for software creation and version control (and unfortunate victim of a relentless stream of attacks targeting the same), now supports encryption keys.
GitHub security engineer Kevin Jones said in a blog post on Monday that this is the next step in improving security and usability. These portable FIDO2 fobs are used for SSH authentication to protect Git operations and avoid the havoc that can occur when private keys are misplaced or stolen, or when malware attempts to execute requests without user permission. For instance, in 2019, the TrickBot data-stealing malware was updated to include a password grabber that could attack data from OpenSSH applications.
These security keys, which include the YubiKey, Thetis Fido U2F Security Key, and Google Titan Security Keys, are easy to carry around in your pocket and attach to computers via USB, NFC, or Bluetooth. They can be used instead of one-time passwords generated by apps or sent via SMS. SMS SSH codes sent via text can currently be intercepted.
Strong passwords are still relevant, but because of the proliferation of data breaches and cyberattacks, they are becoming less useful as a single security mechanism, prompting the development of password managers that often check for credential leakage online, biometrics, and security keys.
“We recognize that passwords are convenient, but they are a consistent source of account security challenges,” Jones commented. “We believe passwords represent the present and past, but not the future. 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.”
Since keys are one of the variables in multi-factor authentication (MFA), users can treat them with the same care as any other credential. You should have your security key plugged in if you’re the only one that has access to it. “When using SSH with a security key, none of the sensitive information ever leaves the physical security key device,” Jones added. “If you’re the only person with physical access to your security key, it’s safe to leave plugged in at all times.”
When you use a security key, neither ransomware nor unintended private-key leakage will reveal your keys, he said: “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.”
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