Chapter 6. Configuring smart card authentication with local certificates

To configure smart card authentication with local certificates:

  • The host is not connected to a domain.
  • You want to authenticate with a smart card on this host.
  • You want to configure SSH access using smart card authentication.
  • You want to configure the smart card with authselect.

Use the following configuration to accomplish this scenario:

  • Obtain a user certificate for the user who wants to authenticate with a smart card. The certificate should be generated by a trustworthy Certification Authority used in the domain.

    If you cannot get the certificate, you can generate a user certificate signed by a local certificate authority for testing purposes,

  • Store the certificate and private key in a smart card.
  • Configure the smart card authentication for SSH access.

If a host can be part of the domain, add the host to the domain and use certificates generated by Active Directory or Identity Management Certification Authority.

For details about how to create IdM certificates for a smart card, see Configuring Identity Management for smart card authentication.


  • Authselect installed

    The authselect tool configures user authentication on Linux hosts and you can use it to configure smart card authentication parameters. For details about authselect, see Explaining authselect.

  • Smart Card or USB devices supported by RHEL 8

    For details, see Smart Card support in RHEL8.

6.1. Creating local certificates

Follow this procedure to perform the following tasks:

  • Generate the OpenSSL certificate authority
  • Create a certificate signing request

The following steps are intended for testing purposes only. Certificates generated by a local self-signed Certificate Authority are not as secure as using AD, IdM, or RHCS Certification Authority. You should use a certificate generated by your enterprise Certification Authority even if the host is not part of the domain.


  1. Create a directory where you can generate the certificate, for example:

    # mkdir /tmp/ca
    # cd /tmp/ca
  2. Set up the certificate (copy this text to your command line in the ca directory):

    cat > ca.cnf <<EOF
    [ ca ]
    default_ca = CA_default
    [ CA_default ]
    dir              = .
    database         = \$dir/index.txt
    new_certs_dir    = \$dir/newcerts
    certificate      = \$dir/rootCA.crt
    serial           = \$dir/serial
    private_key      = \$dir/rootCA.key
    RANDFILE         = \$dir/rand
    default_days     = 365
    default_crl_days = 30
    default_md       = sha256
    policy           = policy_any
    email_in_dn      = no
    name_opt         = ca_default
    cert_opt         = ca_default
    copy_extensions  = copy
    [ usr_cert ]
    authorityKeyIdentifier = keyid, issuer
    [ v3_ca ]
    subjectKeyIdentifier   = hash
    authorityKeyIdentifier = keyid:always,issuer:always
    basicConstraints       = CA:true
    keyUsage               = critical, digitalSignature, cRLSign, keyCertSign
    [ policy_any ]
    organizationName       = supplied
    organizationalUnitName = supplied
    commonName             = supplied
    emailAddress           = optional
    [ req ]
    distinguished_name = req_distinguished_name
    prompt             = no
    [ req_distinguished_name ]
    O  = Example
    OU = Example Test
    CN = Example Test CA
  3. Create the following directories:

    # mkdir certs crl newcerts
  4. Create the following files:

    # touch index.txt crlnumber index.txt.attr
  5. Write the number 01 in the serial file:

    # echo 01 > serial

    This command writes a number 01 in the serial file. It is a serial number of the certificate. With each new certificate released by this CA the number increases by one.

  6. Create an OpenSSL root CA key:

    # openssl genrsa -out rootCA.key 2048
  7. Create a self-signed root Certification Authority certificate:

    # openssl req -batch -config ca.cnf \
        -x509 -new -nodes -key rootCA.key -sha256 -days 10000 \
        -set_serial 0 -extensions v3_ca -out rootCA.crt
  8. Create the key for your username:

    # openssl genrsa -out example.user.key 2048

    This key is generated in the local system which is not secure, therefore, remove the key from the system when the key is stored in the card.

    You can create a key directly in the smart card as well. For doing this, follow instructions created by the manufacturer of your smart card.

  9. Create the certificate signing request configuration file (copy this text to your command line in the ca directory):

    cat > req.cnf <<EOF
    [ req ]
    distinguished_name = req_distinguished_name
    prompt = no
    [ req_distinguished_name ]
    O = Example
    OU = Example Test
    CN = testuser
    [ req_exts ]
    basicConstraints = CA:FALSE
    nsCertType = client, email
    nsComment = "testuser"
    subjectKeyIdentifier = hash
    keyUsage = critical, nonRepudiation, digitalSignature, keyEncipherment
    extendedKeyUsage = clientAuth, emailProtection, msSmartcardLogin
    subjectAltName = otherName:msUPN;UTF8:testuser@EXAMPLE.COM,
  10. Create a certificate signing request for your example.user certificate:

    # openssl req -new -nodes -key example.user.key \
        -reqexts req_exts -config req.cnf -out example.user.csr
  11. Configure the new certificate. Expiration period is set to 1 year:

    # openssl ca -config ca.cnf -batch -notext \
        -keyfile rootCA.key -in example.user.csr -days 365 \
        -extensions usr_cert -out example.user.crt

At this point, the certification authority and certificates are successfully generated and prepared for import into a smart card.

6.2. Copying certificates to the SSSD directory

GNOME Desktop Manager (GDM) requires SSSD. If you use GDM, you need to copy the PEM certificate to the /etc/sssd/pki directory.


  • The local CA authority and certificates have been generated


  1. Ensure that you have SSSD installed on the system.

    # rpm -q sssd
  2. Create a /etc/sssd/pki directory:

    # file /etc/sssd/pki
    /etc/sssd/pki/: directory
  3. Copy the rootCA.crt as a PEM file in the /etc/sssd/pki/ directory:

    # cp /tmp/ca/rootCA.crt /etc/sssd/pki/sssd_auth_ca_db.pem

Now you have successfully generated the certificate authority and certificates, and you have saved them in the /etc/sssd/pki directory.


If you want to share the Certificate Authority certificates with another application, you can change the location in sssd.conf:

  • SSSD PAM responder: pam_cert_db_path in the [pam] section
  • SSSD ssh responder: ca_db in the [ssh] section

For details, see man page for sssd.conf.

Red Hat recommends keeping the default path and using a dedicated Certificate Authority certificate file for SSSD to make sure that only Certificate Authorities trusted for authentication are listed here.

6.3. Installing tools for managing and using smart cards

To configure your smart card, you need tools which can generate certificates and store them on a smart card.

You must:

  • Install the gnutls-utils package, which helps you to manage certificates.
  • Install the opensc package, which provides a set of libraries and utilities to work with smart cards.
  • Start the pcscd service, which communicates with the smart card reader.


  1. Install the opensc and gnutls-utils packages:

    # dnf -y install opensc gnutls-utils
  2. Start the pcscd service.

    # systemctl start pcscd

Verify that the pcscd service is up and running.

6.4. Preparing your smart card and uploading your certificates and keys to your smart card

Follow this procedure to configure your smart card with the pkcs15-init tool, which helps you to configure:

  • Erasing your smart card
  • Setting new PINs and optional PIN Unblocking Keys (PUKs)
  • Creating a new slot on the smart card
  • Storing the certificate, private key, and public key in the slot
  • If required, locking the smart card settings as certain smart cards require this type of finalization

The pkcs15-init tool may not work with all smart cards. You must use the tools that work with the smart card you are using.


  • The opensc package, which includes the pkcs15-init tool, is installed.

    For details, see Installing tools for managing and using smart cards.

  • The card is inserted in the reader and connected to the computer.
  • You have the private key, public key, and certificate to store on the smart card. In this procedure, testuser.key, testuserpublic.key, and testuser.crt are the names used for the private key, public key, and the certificate.
  • You have your current smart card user PIN and Security Officer PIN (SO-PIN).


  1. Erase your smart card and authenticate yourself with your PIN:

    $ pkcs15-init --erase-card --use-default-transport-keys
    Using reader with a card: Reader name
    PIN [Security Officer PIN] required.
    Please enter PIN [Security Officer PIN]:

    The card has been erased.

  2. Initialize your smart card, set your user PIN and PUK, and your Security Officer PIN and PUK:

    $ pkcs15-init --create-pkcs15 --use-default-transport-keys \
        --pin 963214 --puk 321478 --so-pin 65498714 --so-puk 784123
    Using reader with a card: Reader name

    The pcks15-init tool creates a new slot on the smart card.

  3. Set the label and the authentication ID for the slot:

    $ pkcs15-init --store-pin --label testuser \
        --auth-id 01 --so-pin 65498714 --pin 963214 --puk 321478
    Using reader with a card: Reader name

    The label is set to a human-readable value, in this case, testuser. The auth-id must be two hexadecimal values, in this case it is set to 01.

  4. Store and label the private key in the new slot on the smart card:

    $ pkcs15-init --store-private-key testuser.key --label testuser_key \
        --auth-id 01 --id 01 --pin 963214
    Using reader with a card: Reader name

    The value you specify for --id must be the same when storing your private key and storing your certificate in the next step. Specifying your own value for --id is recommended as otherwise a more complicated value is calculated by the tool.

  5. Store and label the certificate in the new slot on the smart card:

    $ pkcs15-init --store-certificate testuser.crt --label testuser_crt \
        --auth-id 01 --id 01 --format pem --pin 963214
    Using reader with a card: Reader name
  6. (Optional) Store and label the public key in the new slot on the smart card:

    $ pkcs15-init --store-public-key testuserpublic.key
        --label testuserpublic_key --auth-id 01 --id 01 --pin 963214
    Using reader with a card: Reader name

    If the public key corresponds to a private key or certificate, specify the same ID as the ID of the private key or certificate.

  7. (Optional) Certain smart cards require you to finalize the card by locking the settings:

    $ pkcs15-init -F

    At this stage, your smart card includes the certificate, private key, and public key in the newly created slot. You have also created your user PIN and PUK and the Security Officer PIN and PUK.

6.5. Configuring SSH access using smart card authentication

SSH connections require authentication. You can use a password or a certificate. Follow this procedure to enable authentication using a certificate stored on a smart card.

For details about configuring smart cards with authselect, see Configuring smart cards using authselect.


  • The smart card contains your certificate and private key.
  • The card is inserted in the reader and connected to the computer.
  • SSSD is installed and configured.
  • Your username matches the Common Name (CN) or User ID (UID) in the certificate’s SUBJECT.
  • The pcscd service is running on your local machine.

    For details, see Installing tools for managing and using smart cards.


  1. Create a new directory for SSH keys in the home directory of the user who uses smart card authentication:

    # mkdir /home/example.user/.ssh
  2. Run the ssh-keygen -D command with the opensc library to retrieve the existing public key paired with the private key on the smart card, and add it to the authorized_keys list of the user’s SSH keys directory to enable SSH access with smart card authentication.

    # ssh-keygen -D /usr/lib64/pkcs11/ >> ~example.user/.ssh/authorized_keys
  3. SSH requires access right configuration for the /.ssh directory and the authorized_keys file. To set or change the access rights, enter:

    # chown -R example.user:example.user ~example.user/.ssh/
    # chmod 700 ~example.user/.ssh/
    # chmod 600 ~example.user/.ssh/authorized_keys
  4. Optionally, display the keys:

    # cat ~example.user/.ssh/authorized_keys

    The terminal displays the keys.

  5. Verify that the smart card authentication is enabled in the /etc/sssd/sssd.conf file:

    In the [pam] section, enable the pam certificate authentication module: pam_cert_auth = True

    If the sssd.conf file has not been created yet, you can create the minimal functional configuration by copying the following script to the command line:

    # cat > /etc/sssd/sssd.conf <<EOF
    services = nss, pam
    domains = shadowutils
    pam_cert_auth = True
    id_provider = files
  6. To use the SSH keys, configure authentication with the authselect command:

    # authselect select sssd with-smartcard --force

Now, you can verify the SSH access with the following command:

# ssh -I /usr/lib64/ -l example.user localhost hostname

If the configuration is successful, you are prompted to enter the smart card PIN.

The configuration works now locally. Now you can copy the public key and distribute it to authorized_keys files located on all servers on which you want to use SSH.