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Smartcard authentication - Multiple Certificates on a Smartcard

Problem statement

Smartcard can contain multiple certificates valid for authentication. Currently SSSD uses only the first valid one returned by the configured PKCS#11 module.

SSSD should allow the user to choose the certificate which should be used for authentication at login time.

Use cases

A Smartcard might contain different certificates which can be used by a single person to authenticate as different roles (different accounts). At login time the user should be able to choose the certificate so that he can login with the expected role.

A Smartcard might contain certificates for different purposes which will all match the configured criteria for login (matching and mapping rules) but only one is accepted on the server side for login. At login time the user must be able to select the certificate which is accepted on the server side to login successfully.

Overview of the solution

The primary way to login to a desktop with a connected Smartcard reader is via GDM. GDM has a special plugin which can detect the insertion of a Smartcard in the reader and start the login process based on this. Recently an extension for a special type of PAM conversation was added ( which allows to easily select from a list of options.

SSSD should support the GDM PAM extensions in pam_sss. As a fallback a text based interface which displays a numbered list of options should be used. The user can then enter the number of the certificate which should be used.

To make it easy to the user to choose the right certificate the Subject-DNs of the different certificates found on the card should be shown together with the label of the certificate. It would be possible to make this configurable in a later version.

Implementation details

Currently in the communication between the SSSD components (pam_sss, PAM responder, p11_child and backend) there are already attributes used to uniquely identify a certificate on a Smartcard. This was added with the PKINIT support to make sure the certificate matched by SSSD to the user is the same used by the MIT Kerberos PKINIT plugin. This means that the initial part of the communication between pam_sss and the PAM responders has to be refactored to not only support one set of attributes but multiple. Additionally a user prompt for each certificate (Subject-DN and label) has to be added to the attributes.

As mentioned above pam_sss should support the GDM PAM extension for an option list besides a simple text based interface. Luckily all internal details of this extension are hidden in macros which are provider by recent version of gdm in the /usr/include/gdm/gdm-pam-extensions.h header file. This means that there is no additional runtime requirement.

On the PAM responder side the code has to be adopted to make sure the user name mapped to the selected certificate is determined before the actual authentication starts, i.e. the authentication request is sent to the backend.

Configuration changes

No configuration changes are needed. If p11_child detects multiple certificate suitable for authentication SSSD should allow the user to select one.

How To Test

To test this feature a Smartcard with multiple different certificate (together with the matching private keys) should be created. For different use cases

  • the certificates can be all mapped to single user
  • the certificates can be all mapped to different users
  • only some certificates are mapped while the other are not suitable for authentication
  • no certificate is mapped to a user

How To Debug

All debug data can be found in the usual SSSD log files. For Smartcard authentication sssd_pam.log, p11_child.log and the backend log file are the most important ones.


  • Sumit Bose <<>>