December 3, 2019: updated post to work on macOS 10.14

I recently started fiddling with Ansible. I’m in a position where I see what all the fuss is about, but its quirks still nag me; one of which is the requirement to use sshpass for when you don’t have your SSH keys in place.

I really don’t like sshpass - mostly because of security concerns - but the end goal of SSH automation is still worth pursuing, I think.

So, this exercise started by being stubborn in believing you could mostly do what sshpass does with plain vanilla ssh! In fact, I would argue that this might be A Better Way™, but you’re free to disagree. =)

I want to store my passwords in an OS X keychain and have them read straight to ssh, so first we’ll create a secure keychain for this purpose:

# create a new keychain
$ security create-keychain -P test.keychain
# have it lock on sleep or after 5min
$ security set-keychain-settings -lu -t 300 test.keychain

OS X command line tools for system management seem to be an after-thought, as I accidentally messed up my keychain search index while researching for this post and could only recover by using the GUI Keychain Access app (that might be a story for a later post).

In any case, securely adding a new password to the keychain doesn’t seem possible through the CLI as the tool mandates inserting the password as a command line argument. The hack I came up with for not having the password stored in the clear on the shell history file was to write it elsewhere (anywhere you can type text), copying to the clipboard (I know, I know -_- ) and having the shell read from the clipboard:

$ security add-generic-password -a <username> -s ldap -w $(pbpaste) \

The other way you could go about it would be to use the Keychain Access app and create the password item there.

Having done that, we now have to coerce ssh to use the password in the keychain. This was a lot harder than I previously thought, as ssh tries very hard to force you to type the password interactively, for security reasons. Having said that, here is what the man page states:

SSH_ASKPASS           If ssh needs a passphrase, it will read the passphrase
                      from the current terminal if it was run from a terminal.
                      If ssh does not have a terminal associated with it but
                      DISPLAY and SSH_ASKPASS are set, it will execute the
                      program specified by SSH_ASKPASS and open an X11 window
                      to read the passphrase. (...)

This means we can use SSH_ASKPASS environment variable to pipe a password into ssh, as long as:

  • ssh does not have a terminal associated with it;
  • there is a DISPLAY environment variable set.

This was made so that X11 password prompts could be used with ssh. As we’re on OS X, this is kind of irrelevant.

Oh well.

The hard part here is tricking ssh to run without an associated terminal and, after several failed attempts, I had to resort to The Internets. Luckily, I’m not the first person to have had this idea so sample code was readily available. In fact, the linked post has almost everything you need to do ssh automation; it just needed a little OS X love to work. I’ve set up a github repository with the code so that this is easily reproduceable. You just need to clone the repo and follow the instructions to install notty.

The fun part is that SSH_ASKPASS just needs to point to an executable that outputs the password to stdout. Of course that would be lame and terribly insecure, so we just need to write a script that, with your permission, grabs your password from the keychain.

Place the following in ~/bin/askpass:

#!/usr/bin/env bash
/usr/bin/security find-generic-password -a <username> -s ldap -w \

and make it executable:

$ chmod u+x ~/bin/askpass

The parameters you use here are the same you used when creating your generic-password item earlier.

We now have the foundations to passwordless (sort of) ssh and can try it with a server with password authentication:

$ DISPLAY=:99 SSH_ASKPASS="~/bin/askpass" notty ssh -q <server> uptime

If everything went well, a keychain prompt should appear asking for the keychain password. After that you’ll feel the sweet bliss of realizing you just had to type a password so that you don’t need to type another. ^_^’

Most of the pieces are now in place to replace sshpass (that was the point of the exercise, remember?). As ansible is hard-coded to require sshpass for password-based authentication and to disallow password authentication when not using -k, we need to fool it into using our SSH_ASKPASS setup.

Our cool sshpass replacement (place it /usr/local/bin/sshpass):

#!/usr/bin/env bash

export DISPLAY=:99
export SSH_ASKPASS="$HOME/bin/askpass"

[[ $1 == -d* ]] && shift
notty $@

ansible uses the -d flag to tell sshpass which file descriptor to read the password from. As we don’t care about that, we just ignore it and use the rest of the generated command directly.

$ cat /tmp/a

$ ansible -i /tmp/a all -m ping -k
SSH password:
server01 | success >> {
    "changed": false,
    "ping": "pong"

server02 | success >> {
    "changed": false,
    "ping": "pong"

server03 | success >> {
    "changed": false,
    "ping": "pong"


This, of course, is not ideal as ansible prompts you for a password anyway and then our replacement sshpass disregards that entirely. Fixing this requires patching lib/ansible/plugins/connections/, which is a lot uglier than to type gibberish on the ansible prompt.

And that concludes our exercise for now :)

Thanks to @kintoandar for all the help with Ansible, and for pushing me to write this post!