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Setting Up A Robust Authentication Environment For OpenSSH Using QR Code PAM

Do you like WhatsApp Web authentication? Well, WhatsApp Web has always fascinated me with the simplicity of QR-Code based authentication. Though there are similar authentication UIs available, I always wondered whether a remote secure shell (SSH) could be authenticated with a QR code with this kind of simplicity while keeping the auth process secure. In this guide, we will see how to write and implement a bare-bones PAM module for OpenSSH Linux-based system.

“OpenSSH is the premier connectivity tool for remote login with the SSH protocol. It encrypts all traffic to eliminate eavesdropping, connection hijacking, and other attacks. In addition, OpenSSH provides a large suite of secure tunneling capabilities, several authentication methods, and sophisticated configuration options.”

Meet PAM!

PAM, short for “Pluggable Authentication Module,” is a middleware that abstracts authentication features on Linux and UNIX-like operating systems. PAM has been around for more than two decades. The authentication process could be cumbersome with each service looking for authenticating users with a different set of hardware and software, such as username-password, fingerprint module, face recognition, two-factor authentication, LDAP, etc. But the underlining process remains the same, i.e., users must be authenticated as who they say they are. This is where PAM comes into the picture and provides an API to the application layer and provides built-in functions to implement and extend PAM capability.

Source: Redhat

Understand how OpenSSH interacts with PAM

The Linux host OpenSSH (sshd daemon) begins by reading the configuration defined in /etc/pam.conf or alternatively in /etc/pam.d configuration files. The config files are usually defined with service names having various realms (auth, account, session, password). The “auth” realm is what takes care of authenticating users as who they say. A typical sshd PAM service file on Ubuntu OS can be seen below, and you can relate with your own flavor of Linux:


The common-auth file has an “auth” realm with the PAM module, which is responsible for authenticating the user with a password. Our goal is to write a PAM module that replaces with our own version.

When OpenSSH makes calls to the PAM module, the very first function it looks for is “pam_sm_authenticate,” along with some other mandatory function such as pam_sm_setcred. Thus, we will be implementing the pam_sm_authenticate function, which will be an entry point to our shared object library. The module should return PAM_SUCCESS (0) as the return code for successful authentication.

Application Architecture

QR Code PAM Architecture

The project architecture has four main applications. The backend is hosted on an AWS cloud with minimal and low-cost infrastructure resources.

1. PAM Module: Provides QR-Code auth prompt to client SSH Login

2. Android Mobile App: Authenticates SSH login by scanning a QR code

3. QR Auth Server API: Backend application to which our Android App connects and communicates and shares authentication payload along with some other meta information

4. WebSocket Server (API Gateway WebSocket, and NodeJS) App: PAM Module and server-side app shares auth message payload in real time

When a user connects to the remote server via SSH, a PAM module is triggered, offering a QR code for authentication. Information is exchanged between the API gateway WebSocket, which in terms saves temporary auth data in DynamoDB. A user then uses an Android mobile app (written in react-native) to scan the QR code.

Upon scanning, the app connects to the API gateway. An API call is first authenticated by AWS Cognito to avoid any intrusion. The request is then proxied to the Lambda function, which authenticates input payload comparing information available in DynamoDB. Upon successful authentication, the Lambda function makes a call to the API gateway WebSocket to inform the PAM to authenticate the user.

Framework and Toolchains

PAM modules are shared object libraries that must be be written in C (although other languages can be used to compile and link or probably make cross programming language calls like python pam or pam_exec). Below are the framework and toolset I am using to serve this project:

1. gcc, make, automake, autoreconf, libpam (GNU dev tools on Ubuntu OS)

2. libqrencode, libwebsockets, libpam, libssl, libcrypto (C libraries)

3. NodeJS, express (for server-side app)

4. API gateway and API Gateway webSocket, AWS Lambda (AWS Cloud Services for hosting serverless server side app)

5. Serverless framework (for easily deploying infrastructure)

6. react-native, react-native-qrcode-scanner (for Android mobile app)

7. AWS Cognito (for authentication)

8. AWS Amplify Library

This guide assumes you have a basic understanding of the Linux OS, C programming language, pointers, and gcc code compilation. For the backend APIs, I prefer to use NodeJS as a primary programming language, but you may opt for the language of your choice for designing HTTP APIs.

Authentication with QR Code PAM Module

When the module initializes, we first want to generate a random string with the help “/dev/urandom” character device. Byte string obtained from this device contains non-screen characters, so we encode them with Base64. Let’s call this string an auth verification string.


We then initiate a WebSocket connection with the help of the libwebsockets library and connect to our API Gateway WebSocket endpoint. Once the connection is established, we inform that a user may try to authenticate with auth verification string. The API Gateway WebSocket returns a unique connection ID to our PAM module.


Upon receiving the connection id from the server, the PAM module converts this connection id to SHA1 hash string and finally composes a unique string for generating QR Code. This string consists of three parts separated by colons (:), i.e.,

“qrauth:BASE64(AUTH_VERIFY_STRING):SHA1(CONNECTION_ID).” For example, let’s say a random Base64 encoded string is “UX6t4PcS5doEeA==” and connection id is “KZlfidYvBcwCFFw=”

Then the final encoded string is “qrauth:UX6t4PcS5doEeA==:2fc58b0cc3b13c3f2db49a5b4660ad47c873b81a.

This string is then encoded to the UTF8 QR code with the help of libqrencode library and the authentication screen is prompted by the PAM module.


API Gateway WebSocket App

We used a serverless framework for easily creating and deploying our infrastructure resources. With serverless cli, we use aws-nodejs template (serverless create --template aws-nodejs). You can find a detailed guide on Serverless, API Gateway WebSocket, and DynamoDB here. Below is the template YAML definition. Note that the DynamoDB resource has TTL set to expires_at property. This field holds the UNIX epoch timestamp.

What this means is that any record that we store is automatically deleted as per the epoch time set. We plan to keep the record only for 5 minutes. This also means the user must authenticate themselves within 5 minutes of the authentication request to the remote SSH server.


The API Gateway WebSocket has three custom events. These events come as an argument to the lambda function in “event.body.action.” API Gateway WebSocket calls them as route selection expressions. These custom events are:

  • The “expectauth” event is sent by the PAM module to WebSocket informing that a client has asked for authentication and mobile application may try to authenticate by scanning QR code. During this event, the WebSocket handler stores the connection ID along with auth verification string. This key acts as a primary key to our DynamoDB table.

  • The “getconid” event is sent to retrieve the current connection ID so that the PAM can generate a SHA1 sum and provide a QR Code prompt.

  • The “verifyauth” event is sent by the PAM module to confirm and verify authentication. During this event, even the WebSocket server expects random challenge response text. WebSocket server retrieves data payload from DynamoDB with auth verification string as primary key, and tries to find the key “authVerified” marked as “true” (more on this later).


Android App: SSH QR Code Auth

The Android app consists of two parts. App login and scanning the QR code for authentication. The AWS Cognito and Amplify library ease out the process of a secure login. Just wrapping your react-native app with “withAutheticator” component you get ready to use “Login Screen.” We then use the react-native-qrcode-scanner component to scan the QR Code.

This component returns decoded string on the successful scan. Application logic then breaks the string and finds the validity of the string decoded. If the decoded string is a valid application string, an API call is made to the server with the appropriate payload.


This guide does not cover how to deploy react-native Android applications. You may refer to the official react-native guide to deploy your application to the Android mobile device.


The QR Auth API is built using a serverless framework with aws-nodejs template. It uses API Gateway as HTTP API and AWS Cognito for authorizing input requests. The serverless YAML definition is defined below.


Once the API Gateway authenticates the incoming requests, control is handed over to the serverless-express router. At this stage, we verify the payload for the auth verify string, which is scanned by the Android mobile app. This auth verify string must be available in the DynamoDB table. Upon retrieving the record pointed by auth verification string, we read the connection ID property and convert it to SHA1 hash. If the hash matches with the hash available in the request payload, we update the record “authVerified” as “true” and inform the PAM module via API Gateway WebSocket API. PAM Module then takes care of further validation via challenge response text.

The entire authentication flow is depicted in a flow diagram, and the architecture is depicted in the cover post of this blog.

SSH QR Code Authentication Flow Diagram

Compiling and Installing PAM module

Unlike any other C programs, PAM modules are shared libraries. Therefore, the compiled code when loaded in memory may go at this arbitrary place. Thus, the module must be compiled as position independent. With gcc while compiling, we must pass -fPIC option. Further while linking and generating shared object binary, we should use -shared flag.


To ease this process of compiling and validating libraries, I prefer to use the autoconf tool. The entire project is checked out at my GitHub repository along with autoconf scripts.

Once the shared object file is generated (, copy this file to the “/usr/lib64/security/” directory and run ldconfig command to inform OS new shared library is available. Remove common-auth (from /etc/pam.d/sshd if applicable) or any line that uses “auth” realm with module recursively used in /etc/pam.d/sshd. module enforces a password or private key authentication. We then need to add our module to the auth realm (“auth required”). Depending upon your Linux flavor, your /etc/pam.d/sshd file may look similar to below:


Finally, we need to configure our sshd daemon configuration file to allow challenge response authentication. Open file /etc/ssh/sshd_config and add “ChallengeResponseAuthentication yes” if already not available or commented or set to “no.” Reload the sshd service by issuing the command “systemctl reload sshd.” Voila, and we are done here.


This guide was a barebones tutorial and not meant for production use. There are certain flaws to this PAM module. For example, our module should prompt for changing the password if the password is expired or login should be denied if an account is a locked and similar feature that addresses security. Also, the Android mobile app should be bound with ssh username so that, AWS Cognito user bound with ssh username could only authenticate.

One known limitation to this PAM module is we have to always hit enter after scanning the QR Code via Android Mobile App. This limitation is because of how OpenSSH itself is implemented. OpenSSH server blocks all the informational text unless user input is required. In our case, the informational text is UTF8 QR Code itself.

However, no such input is required from the interactive device, as the authentication event comes from the WebSocket to PAM module. If we do not ask the user to exclusively press enter after scanning the QR Code our QR Code will never be displayed. Thus input here is a dummy. This is a known issue for OpenSSH PAM_TEXT_INFO. Find more about the issue here.


- Pluggable authentication module

- An introduction to Pluggable Authentication Modules (PAM) in Linux

- Custom PAM for SSHD in C

- google-authenticator-libpam

- PAM_TEXT_INFO and PAM_ERROR_MSG conversation not honoured during PAM authentication

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