Configure Ubuntu 16.04 to use two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is an additional layer of security that you can use on your Ubuntu 16.04 LTS server. Apart from entering the regular username and password, users connecting to your server via SSH will be required to enter a token from the Google Authenticator app.

The best way to enable 2FA authentication is through the Google Authenticator app that is available for mobile phones. This app allows you to receive a code that you should enter on your Ubuntu 18.04 alongside your username and password to prove your identity. In this guide, we will show you how you can setup 2FA and use it to help secure your Ubuntu 18.04 server against malicious hackers. We will use the Google Authenticator app available for Android (in the Play Store) and iOS (in iTunes) to generate authentication codes.


  • A system running Ubuntu 16.05 LTS or above (or CentOS 6/7)
  • A phone running Apple iOS or Android with the Google Authenticator app available iOS (in iTunes) and Android (in the Play Store) to generate authentication codes. Other tools like Authy and FreeOTP exist if you don't want to use the Google tool.
  • A configured SSH connection


  1. Install the Google Authenticator PAM module. On Ubuntu type:
    # sudo apt-get install libpam-google-authenticator

    On CentOS 6, enter:

    # sudo yum install google-authenticator

    and for CentOS 7, type:

    # sudo dnf install google-authenticator
  2. Update the /etc/pam.d/sshd file to use the Google Authenticator module by adding the following line to the bottom of the file:
    auth required
  3. Open the SSH server configuration file (/etc/ssh/sshd_config):
    1. Change ChallengeResponseAuthentication from no to yes:
      ChallengeResponseAuthentication yes
    2. Uncomment PasswordAuthentication and change it's value from yes to no:
      PasswordAuthentication no
    3. Change UsePAM from no to yes:
      UsePAM yes
  4. Restart your SSH server daemon:
    # sudo systemctl restart sshd

Configure Google authentication

  1. In a terminal, run the google-authenticator command (you should do this for all users that want 2FA on their accounts):

    # google-authenticator
  2. It will ask you a series of questions, here are the recommended configuration opions:

    1. Do you want authentication tokens to be time-based (y/n) y
    2. You will then get:
      • a URL and a QR Code for the phone to setup,
      • a secret key,
      • a verification code
      • 5 emergency scratch codes that you can use without the authenticator.
    3. Do you want me to update your "/home/<user>/.google_authenticator" file (y/n) y
    4. Do you want to disallow multiple uses of the same authentication
      token? This restricts you to one login about every 30s, but it increases
      your chances to notice or even prevent man-in-the-middle attacks (y/n) y
    5. By default, tokens are good for 30 seconds and in order to compensate for
      possible time-skew between the client and the server, we allow an extra
      token before and after the current time. If you experience problems with poor
      time synchronization, you can increase the window from its default
      size of 1:30min to about 4min.  Do you want to do so? (y/n) y
    6. If the computer that you are logging into isn't hardened against brute-force
      login attempts, you can enable rate-limiting for the authentication module.
      By default, this limits attackers to no more than 3 login attempts every 30s.
      Do you want to enable rate-limiting? (y/n) y
  3. During the google-authenticator user setup process a giant QR code appeared. 2FA QR Code Example

    You will need to scan the QR code with the Google Authenticator app. If you don't want to scan the QR code, you can enter the secret key displayed manually on the Google Authenticator app on your phone.

    Note: Underneath the QR code are a set of emergency scratch codes to be used if you don't have access to your phone.. Write then down and keep them in a safe place.

Testing 2FA configuration

Open a new terminal window and log on your system. This ensures that you can easily undo the changes from the original session in case of misconfiguration:

# ssh user@system

During each login, you will be prompted to enter a verification code alongside your username and password. Use your Google Authenticator app to retrieve the verification code.