It’s a good practice to create one SSH key for each server or service that you want to use. (Yes, even for your GitLab/GitHub account). This way if your key is compromised only one server gets compromised and not all of them. This can be a bit tricky to manage, but you can use an SSH config file, specifying the IdentityFile parameter for each host and it will become easier.

The only problem is that you need to specify a different password for each key. If you store them all together under ~/.ssh/ and have the same password for all of them, and your computer gets compromised (and your password), all of them are compromised. So it defeats the purpose of having one key for each service.

So I needed to use a password manager for storing all the passwords, and I thought why not use the password manager also for managing the keys? Turns out you can. Let’s meet KeepassXC.

KeepassXC is a fork of KeepassX written in C++ with the QT Framework, which brings lots of features and it’s compatible with Keepass and KeepassX databases1. One of its many features is the SSH Agent integration, that makes it able to manage your ssh keys.

I learned how to set it up yesterday and I thought: “Cool, let’s write it down, so I won’t forget it”. So here is the blog post.

Configuring KeepassXC for SSH Agent Integration

The first thing you need to do us to open KeepassXC and go to Tools > Settings. In the settings window click on SSH Agent, and then tick the checkbox that says Enable SSH Agent (requires restart).

Enabling SSH Agent Integration Enabling SSH Agent Integration

Generating some ssh keys and adding them to KeepassXC

Before adding the keys for our servers, we need to create them. Generating them is as simple as using the ssh-keygen command. You can create an RSA key as follows:

$ ssh-keygen -C ""
Generating public/private rsa key pair.
Enter file in which to save the key (/home/user/.ssh/id_rsa): .ssh/id_rsa_somecoolserver
Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase):
Enter same passphrase again:
Your identification has been saved in .ssh/id_rsa_somecoolserver
Your public key has been saved in .ssh/

Use the -C flag to write your own comment. By default, this will be yourUser@hostname, where the user and the hostname are the ones from the local machine that you used to create the keys. However, that doesn’t help at all when someone is looking at the authorized keys on a server, or when you are reading the list of keys represented by the agent.

You could save your keys in the default path, or specify a new path or name during creation. In the example before, the keys were created with the name id_rsa_somecoolserver. Of course, you should always use a strong password and you could generate it with the password generator from KeepassXC. (Okay, maybe not for your LAN-only Kodi box, but it doesn’t take much effort to use a strong password).

You can also specify the type of key using the -t flag. For example for creating an ED25519 key (the ones recommended by GitLab)2:

$ ssh-keygen -t ed25519 -C "Some useful comment"

Now that you have your keys, and you added them to your server (or GitLab/GitHub account), it’s time to create a new entry for them in your KeepassXC database:

Adding a new key Adding a new key

If it makes it easier for you to remember, you could add the username and the URL of the server, but the SSH Agent won’t use them.

You may keep your key files as an external file if you want to store your keys in some specific place, for example in a USB Flash drive that you always carry around your neck; or you may add them as an attachment to the entry in the database. Remember that you’ll only need the private key, as the public key gets generated with the private one:

Adding the key as an attachment Adding the key as an attachment

Having the keys as an attachment makes it easier to back up, since you only need to make a copy of the Keepass database and all the keys will be kept inside. You can also delete the keys after you added the entry. On the downside, the database will grow bigger and bigger with every attachment, however SSH keys are just text files and have around 4 KiB size.

And the last thing you need to do is to set up the key to be available to the SSH Agent. For that just click the SSH Agent icon:

Setting the key available to the SSH Agent Setting the key available to the SSH Agent

Be careful when checking the Add SSH key to agent when database is opened/unlocked option if you are forwarding the SSH Agent (the -A flag in ssh). Please see the section below.

If you choose the option Add SSH key to agent when database is opened/unlocked, your keys will be added to the agent when you unlock your database. If you don’t, you will need to add them manually using the Add to agent button when you want to use them.

If you want to get a confirmation when a key is used (as you should), you will need to install the ssh-askpass package. In Arch Linux, Manjaro or other Arch-based systems:

$ sudo pacman -S x11-ssh-askpass

If you get an error saying Agent connection failed after adding the key or when you are trying to add it to the agent, don’t worry just read the next section.

Agent connection failed Agent connection failed

Starting SSH Agent with systemd

If you get Agent connection failed, this means that the SSH agent is not running, or is running but the socket is not available for KeepassXC. The best way that I found to solve this problem is using systemd to start and stop the agent.

You can create a systemd User Unit to manage the agent, using this file from the ArchWiki3:

Description=SSH key agent

# DISPLAY required for ssh-askpass to work
ExecStart=/usr/bin/ssh-agent -D -a $SSH_AUTH_SOCK


And add SSH_AUTH_SOCK DEFAULT="${XDG_RUNTIME_DIR}/ssh-agent.socket" to your ~/.pam_environment. Remember that you’ll need to re login for the .pam_environment changes to take effect.

Now you can start and stop the SSH Agent using:

$ systemctl start --user ssh-agent
$ systemctl stop --user ssh-agent

And if you want the agent to start automatically when you log in:

$ systemctl enable --user ssh-agent

Using SSH Agent forwarding

One of the great things about an SSH Agent (independently if you are using KeepassXC or not) is that you are able to forward the agent to a remote server. This way you can use your keys in that server without copying them over and exposing them to theft. This could allow you, for example, to clone a private repo over SSH into the remote machine without the need of having your keys there. The only security risk with this approach is that an evil root on that server could impersonate you during the time that your session is open. For more information, about SSH Agent forwarding and how this works, you could see this YouTube video. Basically, you could add the -A flag when connecting to the server:

$ ssh -A someuser@somecoolserver

The problem is that if you choose to pass all your keys to the Agent automatically (when clicking Add SSH key to agent when database is opened/unlocked), this evil root will have access to all your keys. So I recommend that you check which keys the agent has before doing the forwarding. For that you use this command:

$ ssh-add -l
3072 SHA256:fEWehzd/C3jGWchHqbSHf4atIuQcsw9fznzJsuaUt4A (RSA)
256 SHA256:Id1KB8aS+K0F4IBFBtwws8BnX8Ayr0zrieeRgJveHsM My git key (ED25519)
3072 SHA256:1DdI/fVVhKU9LM+5n9NRPamg68dYrWFXJwddJEkoZt8 user2@supersecretproject (RSA)

In the example above, I would like to use the first key to authenticate into the server, and my git key to clone some repos in the server, however I don’t need the key to the super secret project. So you can remove it individually with the Remove from agent button from KeepassXC; or you can remove all of them running ssh-add -D and then add the ones you need.

Optional: Create an SSH config

One thing that is not necessary to use SSH, but could come in really handy is to specify a config file for your connections. Here you can give a friendly name to your hosts. You can even specify the user for that server and if you want to forward the SSH agent (so you don’t have to type -A every time you want to connect).

For that you create a new file at ~/.ssh/config. Here you have an example file:

Host some-friendly-name
  Hostname supersecretproject.local

Host coolserver
  User user1

Host rpi
  User pi
  ForwardAgent yes
  • Host: a friendly name that you want to use with ssh.
  • Hostname: the DNS name or the IP address of the server.
  • User: your username in that server.
  • ForwardAgent: if you want to forward the SSH Agent (default no)

For more information and a lot of more options, always check the man page for ssh_config

If you liked this article, found some mistake or have some comments, write on Twitter or give a ping on IRC

  1. KeepassXC project: ↩︎

  2. GitLab and SSH keys: ↩︎

  3. ArchWiki SSH Agents: ↩︎