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I'm reading this article on setting up unattended backups in Duplicity.

I'm in the part called 7.2. SSH KeyCaching

I've added the following to my root .bash_profile

keychain --clear id_rsa 
. /root/.keychain/www-sh

The article states that keychain should startup, and that I should be asked for my PASSPHRASE for my private key (/root/.ssh/id_rsa) at this point.

I don't get the expected results here, although keychain indeed starts, it throws out some warnings at this point:

KeyChain 2.6.8; http://www.gentoo.org/proj/en/keychain/
Copyright 2002-2004 Gentoo Foundation; Distributed under the GPL

 * Found existing ssh-agent (2014)
 * ssh-agent: All identities removed.
 * Warning: /root/.ssh/id_rsa.pub missing; can't tell if /root/.ssh/id_rsa is loaded


I've found some mention of this in the Gentoo Forums but the users of the thread seem to be mystified as to why keychain is asking for id_rsa.pub and I was wondering if anybody knew why keychain would ask for the public key.

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1 Answer 1

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I freely concede that I have no knowledge of the inner workings of keychain, but it's completely reasonable that a local ssh agent should be upset not to have a public key that corresponds to a private key that it does have.

Consider what happens when you approach a remote server to authenticate. The remote server knows, from its authorized_keys file, that it's prepared to accept a client that can prove it has the corresponding private key to each entry therein. But how does it ask for that from the client? It can't give each private key itself, nor any property thereof, because it doesn't have it; all it can do is present the public key(s), or fingerprints thereof, that it will accept.

If the client has any of those those public keys, it can immediately select the matching private key, and make a response which the server will accept as correct. If it doesn't have those public keys, what is it to do? Try every private key in its repertoire in turn? A better recipe for unsafe information disclosure could scarcely be imagined; a black-hat would only have to set up a man-in-the-middle attack on a single new connection to harvest legitimate responses from every key in your keyring.

It's possible that keypairs have some kind of internal numbering, but this would be completely arbitrary and unwise to rely on. There's no guaranteed internal property tying a private and public key together, because there's nothing shared by the keys in a keypair, save that one is (hopefully) the only entity that can undo what the other does.

No, the best way for the client to select the right private key to use to any given server is to have the matching public keys to assist it in key selection.

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