I have a server set up to require public-key authentication for ssh access using a key with a password. Is there a way to set up a password-less key that will only be allowed when executing rsync over ssh, while still requiring the key and password for all other ssh access?


Create a separate RSA key just for rsync to use. Do not put a passphrase on that key. Give it a unique name, such as id_rsa_rsync for the private key and id_rsa_rsync.pub for the public key.

On the server, install the public key on a new line of ~/.ssh/authorized_keys, like this:

(server)$ cat << EOF >> .ssh/authorized_keys
command="rsync",no-pty,no-port-forwarding (paste your public key here)

Check the resulting file to make sure it looks sort of like this:

(server)$ tail -1 .ssh/authorized_keys
command="rsync",no-pty,no-port-forwarding ssh-rsa AAAAB3..blah..blah..HhcvQ== you@example.com

When you want to rsync from your local machine to the server, you will need to add -e 'ssh -i ~/.ssh/id_rsa_rsync' to tell rsync to use the new key you just set up:

rsync -av -e 'ssh -i ~/.ssh/id_rsa_rsync' local/files* server:/remote/path/

With some clever entries in your ~/.ssh/config file, you can simplify the rsync command line:

# this entry is used for normal logins to "server":
Host server
  IdentityFile ~/.ssh/id_rsa

# this entry is used for rsyncing to "server" without a passphrase:
Host server-rsync
  Hostname server
  IdentityFile ~/.ssh/id_rsa_rsync

The Hostname server line needs to specify a valid DNS name or /etc/hosts entry. With that config entry in place, your rsync command line becomes just:

rsync -av local/files* server-rsync:/remote/path/
  • So, per your last point, if I set up config in .ssh, I don't have to even tell rsync directly to use ssh, but it will look in the .ssh/config file automatically and use that? – Wallphoenix May 27 '19 at 18:53
  • Yes, if I understand you correctly. rsync uses ssh by default. But by default, ssh uses your normal key, which requires a passphrase. But if you set up the .ssh/config file, and then use the special hostname "server-rsync" (or one of your own choosing) in the rsync command line, then ssh will use the new key that does not require a passphrase. – Jim L. May 27 '19 at 22:51
  • I couldn't get this to work, then I discovered this method will allow executing rsync [b]on the server[/b] using the password-less key. I'm trying to use rsync on my local host to copy files to the server and I wasn't clear on that in my question. It put me on the right track, though, for an alternative. Thanks! – Wallphoenix May 29 '19 at 17:25

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