4.4.5. Using Certificate Extensions

An X.509 v3 certificate contains an extension field that permits any number of additional fields to be added to the certificate. Certificate extensions provide a way of adding information such as alternative subject names and usage restrictions to certificates. Older Netscape servers, such as Red Hat Directory Server and Red Hat Certificate System, require Netscape-specific extensions because they were developed before PKIX part 1 standards were defined.
The X.509 v1 certificate specification was originally designed to bind public keys to names in an X.500 directory. As certificates began to be used on the Internet and extranets and directory lookups could not always be performed, problem areas emerged that were not covered by the original specification.
  • Trust. The X.500 specification establishes trust by means of a strict directory hierarchy. By contrast, Internet and extranet deployments frequently involve distributed trust models that do not conform to the hierarchical X.500 approach.
  • Certificate use. Some organizations restrict how certificates are used. For example, some certificates may be restricted to client authentication only.
  • Multiple certificates. It is not uncommon for certificate users to possess multiple certificates with identical subject names but different key material. In this case, it is necessary to identify which key and certificate should be used for what purpose.
  • Alternate names. For some purposes, it is useful to have alternative subject names that are also bound to the public key in the certificate.
  • Additional attributes. Some organizations store additional information in certificates, such as when it is not possible to look up information in a directory.
  • Relationship with CA. When certificate chaining involves intermediate CAs, it is useful to have information about the relationships among CAs embedded in their certificates.
  • CRL checking. Since it is not always possible to check a certificate's revocation status against a directory or with the original certificate authority, it is useful for certificates to include information about where to check CRLs.
The X.509 v3 specification addressed these issues by altering the certificate format to include additional information within a certificate by defining a general format for certificate extensions and specifying extensions that can be included in the certificate. The extensions defined for X.509 v3 certificates enable additional attributes to be associated with users or public keys and manage the certification hierarchy. The Internet X.509 Public Key Infrastructure Certificate and CRL Profile recommends a set of extensions to use for Internet certificates and standard locations for certificate or CA information. These extensions are called standard extensions.


For more information on standard extensions, see RFC 2459, RFC 3280, and RFC 3279.
The X.509 v3 standard for certificates allows organizations to define custom extensions and include them in certificates. These extensions are called private, proprietary, or custom extensions, and they carry information unique to an organization or business. Applications may not able to validate certificates that contain private critical extensions, so it not recommended that these be used in wide-spread situations.
Before the X.509 v3 standard was finalized, Netscape and other companies had to address some of the most pressing issues with their own extension definitions. For example, applications such as Netscape Navigator and Enterprise Server supported an extension known as the Netscape Certificate Type Extension that specifies the type of certificate issued, such as client, server, or email. To maintain compatibility with older versions of browsers that were released before the X.509 v3 specification was finalized, certain kinds of certificates should include some of these Netscape extensions.
The X.500 and X.509 specifications are controlled by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an international organization that primarily serves large telecommunication companies, government organizations, and other entities concerned with the international telecommunications network. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which controls many of the standards that underlie the Internet, is currently developing public-key infrastructure X.509 (PKIX) standards. These proposed standards further refine the X.509 v3 approach to extensions for use on the Internet. The recommendations for certificates and CRLs have reached proposed standard status and are in a document referred to as PKIX Part 1.
Two other standards, Abstract Syntax Notation One (ASN.1) and Distinguished Encoding Rules (DER), are used with Certificate System and certificates in general. These are specified in the CCITT Recommendations X.208 and X.209. For a quick summary of ASN.1 and DER, see A Layman's Guide to a Subset of ASN.1, BER, and DER, which is available at RSA Laboratories' web site, http://www.rsa.com. Structure of Certificate Extensions

In RFC 3280, an X.509 certificate extension is defined as follows:
Extension  ::=  SEQUENCE  { 

extnValue OCTET STRING  }
The means a certificate extension consists of the following:
  • The object identifier (OID) for the extension. This identifier uniquely identifies the extension. It also determines the ASN.1 type of value in the value field and how the value is interpreted. When an extension appears in a certificate, the OID appears as the extension ID field (extnID) and the corresponding ASN.1 encoded structure appears as the value of the octet string (extnValue).
  • A flag or Boolean field called critical.
    The value, which can be either true or false, assigned to this field indicates whether the extension is critical or noncritical to the certificate.
    • If the extension is critical and the certificate is sent to an application that does not understand the extension based on the extension's ID, the application must reject the certificate.
    • If the extension is not critical and the certificate is sent to an application that does not understand the extension based on the extension's ID, the application can ignore the extension and accept the certificate.
  • An octet string containing the DER encoding of the value of the extension.
Typically, the application receiving the certificate checks the extension ID to determine if it can recognize the ID. If it can, it uses the extension ID to determine the type of value used.
Some of the standard extensions defined in the X.509 v3 standard include the following:
  • Authority Key Identifier extension, which identifies the CA's public key, the key used to sign the certificate.
  • Subject Key Identifier extension, which identifies the subject's public key, the key being certified.


Not all applications support certificates with version 3 extensions. Applications that do support these extensions may not be able to interpret some or all of these specific extensions.