Disallow SSH to content-protected AMI instances

AWS adds an SSH key on every EC2 instance creation, either by adding a new key-pair or using the existing one based on the user’s choice. This gets a bit annoying while distributing a sealed (content-protected) AMI. Any user who has access to this AMI for deployment could create an instance by adding their key, thus gets access to the protected content residing inside the instance.

How EC2 instance gets user’s SSH key?

During the instance creation, a systemd service named cloud-init gets invoked by multi-user.target. This service appends user-input SSH key into ~/.ssh/allowed_keys.

Files responsible for this service are cloud-init.service, cloud-init-local.service, cloud-config.service & cloud-final.service, which can be located under /etc/systemd/system/cloud-init.target/.

Prevention method - systemd for the rescue!

The easiest way to fix this is by removing user’s SSH key as soon as the instance boot up, instead override allowed_keys with owner’s key. This can be performed by writing a custom systemd service.

(If you are using tools such as Packer to build AMI, this can be included in provisioning scripts.)

STEP 1: Script to override allowed_keys



echo $allowed_key > ~/.ssh/allowed_keys
STEP 2: Service to execute the above script


Description=custom ssh override service
After=network-online.target cloud-final.service


  • Type is oneshot because the service should just execute an action without keeping active processes.
  • This customssh is executed by cloud-init.target as soon as cloud-final.service is completed.
  • After the allowed_keys override, sshd (SSH Daemon) restart is also required.
STEP 3: Enabling the service
$ systemctl enable customssh.service

Created symlink from /etc/systemd/system/cloud-init.target.wants/customssh.service to /etc/systemd/system/customssh.service.

enable will hook the specified unit into relevant places, so that it will automatically start on boot.

Check status:

$ systemctl status customssh.service

That’s it. Our customssh service would be executed whenever an instance is created from the AMI. This always overrides with owner’s SSH public key, thus removes any key auto added by AWS.

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