Wandering Thoughts archives

2017-03-26

Your exposure from retaining Let's Encrypt account keys

In a comment on my entry on how I think you have lots of Let's Encrypt accounts, Aristotle Pagaltzis asked a good question:

Taking this logic to its logical conclusion: as long as you can arrange to prove your control of a domain under some ACME challenge at any time, should you not immediately delete an account after obtaining a certificate through it?

(Granted – in practice, there is the small matter that deleting accounts appears unimplemented, as per your other entry…)

Let's take the last bit first: for security purposes, it's sufficient to destroy your account's private key. This leaves dangling registration data on Let's Encrypt's servers, but that's not your problem; with your private key destroyed, no one can use your authorized account to get any further certificates.

(If they can, either you or the entire world of cryptography have much bigger problems.)

For the broader issue: yes, in theory it's somewhat more secure to immediately destroy your private key the moment you have successfully obtained a certificate. However, there is a limit to how much security you get this way because someone with unrestricted access to your machine can get their own authorization for it with an account of their own. If I have root access to your machine and you normally run a Let's Encryption authorization process from it, I can just use my own client to do that same and get my own authorized account. I can then take the private key off the machine and later use it to get my own certificates for your machine.

(I can also reuse an account I already have and merely pass the authorization check, but in practice I might as well get a new account to go with it.)

The real exposure for existing authorized accounts is when it's easier to get at the account's private key than it is to get unrestricted access to the machine itself. If you keep the key on the machine and only accessible to root, well, I won't say you have no additional exposure at all, but in practice your exposure is probably fairly low; there are a lot of reasonably sensitive secrets that are protected this way and we don't consider it a problem (machine SSH host keys, for example). So in my opinion your real exposure starts going up when you transport the account key off the machine, for example to reuse the same account on multiple machines or over machine reinstalls.

As a compromise you might want to destroy account keys every so often, say once a year or every six months. This limits your long-term exposure to quietly compromised keys while not filling up Let's Encrypt's database with too many accounts.

As a corollary to this and the available Let's Encrypt challenge methods, someone who has compromised your DNS infrastructure can obtain their own Let's Encrypt authorizations (for any account) for any arbitrary host in your domain. If they issue a certificate for it immediately you can detect this through certificate transparency monitoring, but if they sit on their authorization for a while I don't think you can tell. As far as I know, LE provides no way to report on accounts that are authorized for things in your domain (or any domain), so you can't monitor this in advance of certificates being issued.

For some organizations, compromising your DNS infrastructure is about as difficult as getting general root access (this is roughly the case for us). However, for people who use outside DNS providers, such a compromise may only require gaining access to one of your authorized API keys for their services. And if you have some system that allows people to add arbitrary TXT records to your DNS with relatively little access control, congratulations, you now have a pretty big exposure there.

sysadmin/LetsEncryptAccountExposure written at 01:22:08; Add Comment


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