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Certificate Transparency and HTTPS

Kurt Seifried published on 2018-04-17T15:00:01+00:00, last updated 2018-04-19T18:38:01+00:00

Google has announced that on April 30, 2018, Chrome will:

“...require that all TLS server certificates issued after 30 April, 2018 be compliant with the Chromium CT Policy. After this date, when Chrome connects to a site serving a publicly-trusted certificate that is not compliant with the Chromium CT Policy, users will begin seeing a full page interstitial indicating their connection is not CT-compliant. Sub-resources served over https connections that are not CT-compliant will fail to load and will show an error in Chrome DevTools.”

So what exactly does this mean, and why should one care?

What is a CT policy?

CT stands for “Certificate Transparency” and, in simple terms, means that all certificates for websites will need to be registered by the issuing Certificate Authority (CA) in at least two public Certificate Logs.

When a CA issues a certificate, it now must make a public statement in a trusted database (the Certificate Log) that, at a certain date and time, they issued a certificate for some site. The reason is for more than a year many different CAs have issued certificates for sites and names for which they shouldn’t (like “localhost” or “1.2.3.”) or have issued certificates following fraudulent requests (e.g. people who are not BigBank asking for certificates for bigbank.example.com). By placing all requested certificates into these Certificate Logs, other groups, such as security researchers and companies, can monitor what is being issued and raise red flags as needed (e.g. if you see a certificate issued for your domain, which you did not request).

If you do not announce your certificates in these Certificate Logs, the Chrome web browser will generate an error page that the user must click through before going to the page they were trying to load, and if a page contains elements (e.g. from advertising networks) that are served from non CT-compliant domains, they will simply not be loaded.

Why is Google doing this?

Well there are probably several reasons but the main ones are:

  1. As noted, several CAs have been discovered issuing certificates wrongly or fraudulently, putting Internet users at risk. This technical solution will greatly reduce the risk as such wrong or fraudulently issued certificates can be detected quickly.

  2. More importantly, this prepares for a major change coming to the Chrome web browser in July 2018, in which all HTTP websites will be labeled as “INSECURE”, which should significantly drive up the adoption of HTTPS. This adoption will, of course, result in a flood of new certificates which, combined with the oversight provided by Certificate Logs, should help to catch fraudulently or wrongly-obtained certificates.

What should a web server operator do?

The first step is to identify your web properties, both external facing and internal facing. Then it’s simply a matter of determining whether you:

want the certificate for a website to show up in the Certificate Log so that the Chrome web browser does not generate an error (e.g. your public facing web sites will want this), or absolutely do not want that particular certificate to show up in the Certificate Logs (e.g. a sensitive internal host), and you’re willing to live with Chrome errors.

Depending on how your certificates are issued, and who issued them, you may have some time before this becomes an issue (e.g. if you are using a service that issues short lived certificates you definitely will be affected by this). Also please note that some certificate issuers like Amazon’s AWS Certificate Manager do allow you to choose to opt out of reporting them to the Certificate Logs, a useful feature for certificates being used on systems that are “internal” and you do not want the world to know about.

It should be noted that in the long term, option 2 (not reporting certificates to the Certificate Logs) will become increasingly problematic as it is possible that Google may simply have Chrome block them rather than generate an error. So, with that in mind, now is probably a good time to start determining how your security posture will change when all your HTTPS-based hosts are effectively being enumerated publicly. You will also need to determine what to do with any HTTP web sites, as they will start being labelled as “INSECURE” within the next few months, and you may need to deploy HTTPS for them, again resulting in them potentially showing up in the Certificate Logs.

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About The Author

KS Red Hat

Kurt Seifried

Kurt Seifried works on the Product Security team, having started out in the cloud and management space he is now transitioning into the security standards space (CVE, OVAL, etc.).
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