Warning: This blog post includes instructions for a procedure that can lead you to lock yourself out of your computer. Even if everything goes well, you'll be hunted by dragons. Keep backups, have a rescue system on a USB stick, and wear flameproof clothing. Also, have fun, and tell your loved ones you love them.

I've recently gotten two U2F keys. U2F is a open standard for authentication using hardware tokens. It's probably mostly meant for website logins, but I wanted to have it for local logins on my laptop running Debian. (I also offer a line of stylish aluminium foil hats.)

Having two-factor authentication (2FA) for local logins improves security if you need to log in (or unlock a screen lock) in a public or potentially hostile place, such as a cafe, a train, or a meeting room at a client. If they have video cameras, they can film you typing your password, and get the password that way.

If you set up 2FA using a hardware token, your enemies will also need to lure you into a cave, where a dragon will use a precision flame to incinerate you in a way that leaves the U2F key intact, after which your enemies steal the key, log into your laptop and leak your cat GIF collection.

Looking up information for how to set this up, I found a blog post by Sean Brewer, for Ubuntu 14.04. That got me started. Here's what I understand:

  • PAM is the technology in Debian for handling authentication for logins and similar things. It has a plugin architecture.

  • Yubico (maker of Yubikeys) have written a PAM plugin for U2F. It is packaged in Debian as libpam-u2f. The package includes documentation in /usr/share/doc/libpam-u2f/README.gz.

  • By configuring PAM to use libpam-u2f, you can require both password and the hardware token for logging into your machine.

Here are the detailed steps for Debian stretch, with minute differences from those for Ubuntu 14.04. If you follow these, and lock yourself out of your system, it wasn't my fault, you can't blame me, and look, squirrels! Also not my fault if you don't wear sufficient protection against dragons.

  1. Install pamu2fcfg and libpam-u2f.
  2. As your normal user, mkdir ~/.config/Yubico. The list of allowed U2F keys will be put there.
  3. Insert your U2F key and run pamu2fcfg -u$USER > ~/.config/Yubico/u2f_keys, and press the button on your U2F key when the key is blinking.
  4. Edit /etc/pam.d/common-auth and append the line auth required pam_u2f.so cue.
  5. Reboot (or at least log out and back in again).
  6. Log in, type in your password, and when prompted and the U2F key is blinking, press its button to complete the login.

pamu2fcfg reads the hardware token and writes out its identifying data in a form that the PAM module understands; see the pam-u2f documentation for details. The data can be stored in the user's home directory (my preference) or in /etc/u2f_mappings.

Once this is set up, anything that uses PAM for local authentication (console login, GUI login, sudo, desktop screen lock) will need to use the U2F key as well. ssh logins won't.

Next, add a second key to your u2f_keys. This is important, because if you lose your first key, or it's damaged, you'll otherwise have no way to log in.

  1. Insert your second U2F key and run pamu2fcfg -n > second, and press the second key's button when prompted.
  2. Edit ~/.config/Yubico/u2f_keys and append the output of second to the line with your username.
  3. Verify that you can log in using your second key as well as the first key. Note that you should have only one of the keys plugged in at the same time when logging in: the PAM module wants the first key it finds so you can't test both keys plugged in at once.

This is not too difficult, but rather fiddly, and it'd be nice if someone wrote at least a way to manage the list of U2F keys in a nicer way.