Preventing SSH Known Hosts Enabled Island Hopping

Upon connecting to an OpenSSH server, the server sends its public key to the
client so that the user on the client side can verify that the server they
are trying to connect to is indeed the server they expect it to be (and not an
attacker spoofing the desired SSH server). Once initially verified, the server’s
key is then stored in the $HOME/.ssh/known_hosts file. Proper use
of this system mitigates SSH Spoofing attacks, but by default it also
presents a data leak that could be utilized by someone who has cracked your system.

When securing a system, we would like to believe our efforts will thwart any
any such attempts at penetration; but any good security plan should consider how
to minimize damage in the event that an intruder does gain access. By default
the keys in known_hosts are referenced in plain text:

$ cat $HOME/known_hosts
$, ssh-rsa AAAAB3NzaC1yz2EAAAADAQABAAABAQC/TLO38IPrLW18kgKx4BQmPGmOXaIKRyTGTFtOT4tCph9ORyb7Mh0SlIe1bowqOFcNI6LUNcrloiTFd9wvAljTHriZJASEOy6uCBf1cKcwX/TpjtiA2uJ7mzosmeoB0PFAxCmKvb2xGXGIsjFOHYWSOitKqxj9r9JUAAURgzb5teml9/bcsMz05qZtkS4EmvYAFXXSaqLNiT+Q3UCjj2GD3mSGqyuy4ad+pEENXNf10D/hMxQBiedH4jNhUJSqTCtJtfVf7532OP7qvQ4PISbh3itEmrFBelkDxlC+3mxFFOzk/SyYWf16Roc9xsnR5HK7mGYG4N4YcxYaioCV1Nd9

The problem here is that if an attacker found a vulnerability in your security
and gained access to a single machine, all they would need to do is run the above
command and they would have a list of hosts on the network that possibly have
the same vulerability. This is a type of an Island Hopping attack, in
which an attacker gains access to a ‘weak link’ in the network and then ‘hops’
around from system to system. We can prevent this type of attack by hashing the
hostnames in our known_hosts file.

Hashing will take our human readable hostname (and ip address) and transform
it into something like


Which is virtually useless to an attacker, but OpenSSH will have no problem
utilizing. To configure our server to hash hostnames automatically, set the
following directive in /etc/ssh/ssh_config:

HashKnownHosts yes

To hash existing entries in your known_hosts use:

ssh-keygen -H

This command will copy your $HOME/.ssh/known_hosts file to
$HOME/known_hosts.old with all the plain text hostnames and replace
the known_host file with hashed hostnames. It would be wise to verify
this replacement file will allow you to connect to remote hosts before removing
the known_hosts.old file.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *