GitHub now supports security keys in a move away from passwords

Move to prevent account compromise for SSH Git operations

A padlock on a motherboard surrounded by keys

GitHub has added support for FIDO2 security keys to prevent account compromise in SSH Git operations and start moving away from solely relying on passwords, the company announced.

In a blog post,  GitHub security engineer Kevin Jones said that the company was always looking for new standards that increase security and usability. GitHub users can now use portable FIDO2 devices for SSH authentication to secure Git operations against private key exposure.

"Once generated, you add these new keys to your account just like any other SSH key," said Jones. "You'll still create a public and private key pair, but secret bits are generated and stored in the security key, with the public part stored on your machine like any other SSH public key. "

Jones said that a private key will still be stored on a user’s computer, but this will only reference the security key device itself. If your private key file on your computer is stolen, it would be useless without the security key. 

"When using SSH with a security key, none of the sensitive information ever leaves the physical security key device," added Jones. "If you're the only person with physical access to your security key, it's safe to leave plugged in at all times."

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Users were urged to remove previously registered SSH keys and use only SSH keys backed by security keys. 

“Using only SSH keys backed by security keys gives you strong assurance that you are the only person pulling your Git data via SSH as long as you keep the security key safe like any other private key,” said Jones.

The move toward using security keys comes as the firm looks to avoid using traditional passwords and embrace more secure forms of authentication.

"We recognize that passwords are convenient, but they are a consistent source of account security challenges," said Jones. “We believe passwords represent the present and past, but not the future.”

He added that removing password support for Git — GitHub has already done so for its API — would “raise the baseline security hygiene for every user and organization, and the resulting software supply chain”.

To move over to using security keys, users must log in to the service and follow the instructions in its documentation to create a new key and add it to their account.

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