Google provides an application called Google Authenticator for various smartphone platforms. Using it, you can secure your Google account against hackers by logging in with a frequently-changing code from your phone alongside your regular password. Only your phone and Google know the key needed to generate the code sequence. This provides two factor authentication; you need to know your password as well as have your phone.

Google Authenticator is open source, and build upon open standards. The project provides a pluggable authentication module (PAM) which allows the Authenticator to be used to log into Linux systems (without any involvement from Google’s servers). This is useful for providing additional security for remotely-accessed servers. If for whatever reason you don’t want to use a public key authentication for SSH, you can use Google Authenticator instead, although you can’t use both at once.

The Ubuntu 11.10 repository now includes the PAM for Google Authenticator in the package libpam-google-authenticator.
sudo apt-get install libpam-google-authenticator

If you’re running an older Ubuntu release, you’ll have to download and compile it yourself.

google-authenticator on Ubuntu 11.10

After installing, run the google-authenticator application as the user you will access remotely. This will create a key and display a QR code which you can scan using the smartphone app. You will also get some emergency codes for when you don’t have your phone.

Now you will need to enable the PAM for SSH login attempts. Open the file /etc/pam.d/sshd, and add this line:
auth required pam_google_authenticator.so

Next, open /etc/ssh/sshd_config, and change or add the ChallengeResponseAuthentication line so it reads:
ChallengeResponseAuthentication yes

Restart SSH to make the configuration change take effect:
sudo service ssh restart

If you’re setting this up on a remote server, keep your current SSH session open so you can revert the changes if needed. Try to SSH to the system, and you should be prompted for the password and verification code before you are admitted.

Credit to blog.theroux.ca for the instructions on hooking the PAM up to SHH.

If you’re feeling adventuresome, you can even add the auth required pam_google_authenticator.so line from above to other files in pam.d. Adding it to lightdm will cause the login screen to prompt for the verification code. Adding it to login will cause the virtual terminals to also ask for it (but I couldn’t get them to accept a code on my system).

Google Authenticator is useful for SSH servers, but on a desktop or laptop I’m not sure it’s good for much other than impressing your friends. Anyone with physical access to the system can extract the authenticator key from the hard drive. Even if the drive is encrypted, the key has to remain in the clear in order to validate codes.


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