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Authenticate SSH users keys with GitHub

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This project aims to provide a way for SSHd to authenticate users on shell boxes using GitHub API v3 SSH keys of users in your organization.

How it works

SSH Authentication against GitHub API is done using a feature of OpenSSH, namely AuthorizedKeysCommand and AuthorizedKeysCommandUser.

Everytime a user connects, the script will be called with the login as command line parameter.

In detail, the following happens :

  1. sshd deamon runs github-ssh-auth under the user defined by AuthorizedKeysCommandUser option.

  2. github-ssh-auth reads its configuration file (by default /etc/github-ssh/conf)

  3. according to the configuration file, it looks up the username given by sshd and checks if that user is granted permission to connect to this host

  4. if yes, it tries to read the cache file (recommended but can be disabled) to find user's keys. If no cache file found or if disabled, then it queries GitHub API to get the keys and creates the cache (if enabled).

  5. github-ssh-auth returns a list of eligible ssh public keys to standard output to be processed by sshd

The rest is handled by sshd itself, i.e. checking validity of that public key and the rest of the connection handling.

Updating keys and cache use

To avoid flooding GitHub API and consequently being temporarily banned from using their API in case of massive connects, it is recommended to keep the cache enabled and update the keys only few times a day. The periodicity is yours and that is why there is a special update command line parameter for that.

Consider the following scenario:

  • cache is enabled
  • cache file already exists
  • a new user has joined the team OR an existing user replaced his/her keys

In such case, the cache file will NOT be updated when authentication happens, this is the behavior set by design to separate concerns and prevent connection to the outside world being in the critical path for authentication.

Instead, a locally defined cron should either:

  • call github-ssh-update to update cache
  • delete cache file (by default /etc/github-ssh/cache.json) which will force recreation when next auth happens

Both will have the same outcome but the former is cleaner than the latter.

All in all, choice is yours :wink:


Since this Python module deals with SSH authentication, it should be installed globally, hence:

$ sudo pip install github-ssh-auth

This will install the following program and its shortcuts in /usr/local/bin:


The real application, handling all options, but for convenience the shortcuts described after can be used.


Usage: github-ssh [OPTIONS] COMMAND [ARGS]...

  --version  Show the version and exit.
  --help     Show this message and exit.

  auth    Authenticate user.
  update  Update GitHub SSH Auth cache file (users, teams, keys).


Responsible for authentication itself, this one is to be called by sshd itself.


Usage: github-ssh-auth [OPTIONS] LOGIN

  Authenticate user.

  -c, --config TEXT
  --help             Show this message and exit.


Responsible for updating cache file, it can be scheduled to run periodicaly to ensure synchronization with updated keys from Github.


Usage: github-ssh-update [OPTIONS]

  Update GitHub SSH Auth cache file (users, teams, keys).

  -c, --config TEXT
  --help             Show this message and exit.

Note: In some distros, /usr/local/bin is not eligible for sshd daemon because of some obscure group permissions reason. Moving the binaries from /usr/local/bin to /usr/bin make them work like a charm !


SSH configuration in /etc/ssh/sshd_config

These lines should be somewhere in your sshd configuration file. Usually in /etc/ssh/sshd_config :

AuthorizedKeysCommand /usr/bin/github-ssh-auth %u
AuthorizedKeysCommandUser nobody

GitHub token requirements

Since this application is dealing with some sensitive data (users and their team memberships) within an organization, we will need to create a so-called Personal access tokens.

To do that, fire up your GitHub organization dashboard, look for Settings then Developer settings.

Then click on Generate new token and set its permissions to:


This is the only requirement so that the API can be queried for users and teams memberships. All users keys are public by default an can be accessed from the outside world without authentication against GitHub API.

See for yourself, go to<yourhandle>.keys. :rocket:

GitHub SSH Auth configuration file

It resides by default in /etc/github-ssh/conf but of course you can change it using -c flag when calling (see above).

The format is a standard INI style, as per configparser.

Configuration file template

Below is the complete grammar with inline comments:

# Comments should start with a # and must be full lines
# The following two lines are mandatory
access_token = <token>
organization = <org>

# In case of connectivity lost and to prevent too many connections to GitHub API,
# it is strongly recommended to set it to an absolute filepath.
# Default (when not present) is set to /etc/github-ssh/cache.json and equivalent to:
# cache_file = /etc/github-ssh/cache.json

# If you want to disable, set it to 'false'
# cache_file = [/path/to/file | false]

# Unless overridden after, users (whether individual or teams) will have these configurations applied.
# By default, nothing is set so basically no one will be granted access
# The '<' case means that if a local exists with the same name as a GitHub user,
# it will be granted access. It is a shorthand to avoid a too
# complex, verbose yet common use case where every developer would
# like to have his/her own shell account.
teams_default = [ list,of,local,users,or,< ]
users_default = [ list,of,local,users,or,< ]

# Configuration below will override team defaults
<team_name> = [ list,of,local,users,or,< ]

# And below to override default users setup
<user_name> = [ list,of,local,users,or,< ]

Special note on the '<'

Just a quick focus on that special caracter, designed to allow a GitHub user to connect provided that:

  • user is the Github handle, being part of the organization, and
  • user exists in the local user base (i.e. it is present when you do a getent passwd)

Real world example

Let's say Acme Corp. wants all its developers connect with their GitHub accounts. Let's say users jdoe bob alice are such handles. Also these user handles are also the respective handlers in GitHub.

Then with this simple configuration, we allow globally all these users to login with their handles:

...other config skipped for brevety...

users_default = <

Now if you only want bob to connect using login bob, the configuration file would look like this one:

...other config skipped for brevety...

users_default =

bob = <

Other real world examples

Some other ready-to-be-deployed-or-almost can be found in the example directory.


As this is my first Python module, and even my first Python program ever, I tried different methods to handle testing. Having a lot of shortcomings with some of the tools in the ecosystem (tox, etc.) due to complexity and such I decided to give a go to Docker with Python installed and everything is done inside containers, which is super fast.

So once you have git cloned the repository locally, you can see it for yourself by issuing a:

$ make help
clean        - remove all build, test, coverage and Python artifacts
clean-build  - remove build artifacts
clean-pyc    - remove Python file artifacts
clean-test   - remove test and coverage artifacts
lint         - check style with flake8
test         - run tests quickly with the default Python
coverage     - check code coverage quickly with the default Python
docs         - generate Sphinx HTML documentation, including API docs
release      - package and upload a release
test-release - package and upload a release to testpy repository
dist         - package
install      - install the package to the active Python's site-packages


Comments, issues, PR as :beer: will be warmly welcomed !



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