Wandering Thoughts archives


TLS Certificate Authorities and 'trust'

In casual conversation about CAs, it's common for people to talk about whether you trust a CA (or should) and whether a CA is trustworthy. I often bristle at using 'trust' in these contexts, but it's been hard to articulate why. Today, in a conversation on HN prompted by my entry on the first imperative of commercial CAs, I came up with a useful explanation.

Let's imagine that there's a new CA that's successfully set itself up as a copy of how Let's Encrypt operates; it uses the same hardware, runs the same open source software, configures things the same, follows the same procedures, has equally good staff, has been properly audited, and in general has completely duplicated Let's Encrypt's security and operational excellence. However, it has opted for the intellectually pure approach of starting with new root certificates that are not cross-signed by anyone and it is not in any browser root stores yet; as a result, its certificates are not trusted by any browser.

(Let's Encrypt has made this example plausible, because as a non-commercial CA that mostly does things with automation it doesn't have as many reasons to keep how it operates a secret as a commercial CA does.)

In any reasonable and normal sense of the word, this CA is as trustworthy as Let's Encrypt is. It will issue or not issue TLS certificates in the same situations that LE would (ignoring rate limits and pretending that everyone who authorizes LE in CAA records will also authorize this CA and so on), and its infrastructure and procedures are as secure and solid as LE's. If we trust LE, and I think we do, it's hard to say why we wouldn't trust this CA.

If we say that this CA is 'less trustworthy' than Let's Encrypt anyway, what we really mean is 'TLS certificates from this CA currently provoke browser warnings'. This is a perfectly good thing to care about (and it's usually what matters in practice), but it is not really 'trust' and the difference matters because we have a whole tangled set of expectations, beliefs, and intuitions surrounding the idea of trust. When we use the language of trust to talk about technical issues of which CA certificates the browsers accept and when, we create at least some confusion and lose some clarity, and we risk losing sight of what browser-accepted TLS certificates really are, what they tell us, and what we care about with them.

For instance, if we talk about trust and you get a TLS certificate from a CA, it seems to make intuitive sense to say that you need to trust the CA and that it should be trustworthy. But what does that actually mean when we look at the technical details? What should the CA do or not do? How does that affect our security, especially in light of the fundamental practical problem with the CA model?

At the same time, talking about the trustworthiness of a CA is not a pointless thing. If a CA is not trustworthy (in the normal sense of the word), it should not be included in browsers (and eventually will not be). It's just that the trustworthiness of a CA is only loosely correlated with whether TLS certificates from the CA are currently accepted by browsers, which is almost always what we really care about. As we've seen with StartCom, it can take a quite long time to transition from concluding that a CA is no longer trustworthy to having all its TLS certificates no longer accepted by browsers.

There can also be some amount of time when a new CA is trustworthy but is not included in browsers, because inclusion takes a while. This actually happened with Let's Encrypt; it's just that Let's Encrypt worked around this time delay by getting their certificate cross-signed by an existing in-browser CA, so people mostly didn't notice.

(I will concede that using 'trust' casually is very attractive. For example, in the sentence above I initially wrote 'trusted CA' instead of 'in-browser CA', and while that's sort of accurate I decided it was not the right phrasing to use in this entry.)

Sidebar: The one sort of real trust required in the CA model

Browser vendors and other people who maintain sets of root certificates must trust that CAs included in them will not issue certificates improperly and will in general conduct themselves according to the standards and requirements that the browser has. What constitutes improper issuance is one part straightforward and one part very complicated and nuanced; see, for example, the baseline requirements.

tech/CertificateAuthoritiesAndTrust written at 23:02:11; Add Comment

We've decided to write our future Python tools in Python 3

About a year ago I wrote about our decision to restrict what languages we use to develop internal tools and mentioned that one of the languages we picked was Python. At the time, I mostly meant Python 2 (although we already had one Python 3 program even then, which I sort of had qualms about). Since I now believe in using Python 3 for new code, I decided that the right thing for us to do was explicitly consider the issue and reach a decision, rather than just tacitly winding up in some state.

Our decision is perhaps unsurprising; my co-workers are entirely willing to go along with a slow migration to Python 3. We've now actively decided that new or significantly revised tools written in Python will be written in Python 3 or ported to it (barring some important reason not to do so, for example if the new code needs to still run on our important OmniOS machines). Python 3 is the more future proof choice, and all of the machines where we're going to run Python in the future have a recent enough version of Python 3.

That this came up now is not happenstance or coincidence. We have a suite of local ZFS cover programs and our own ZFS spares handling system, which are all primarily written in Python 2. With a significantly different fileserver setup on the horizon, I've recently started work on 'porting' these programs over to our new fileserver environment (where, for example, we won't have iSCSI backends). This work involves significant revisions and an entirely new set of code to do things like derive disk mapping information under Linux on our new hardware. When I started writing this new code, I asked myself whether this new code in this new environment should still be Python 2 code or whether we should take the opportunity to move it to Python 3 while I was doing major work anyway. I now have an answer; this code is going to be Python 3 code.

(We have Python 3 code already in production, but that code is not critical in the way that our ZFS status monitoring and spares system will be.)

Existing Python 2 code that's working perfectly fine will mostly or entirely remain that way, because we have much more important things to do right now (and generally, all the time). We'll have to deal with it someday (some of it is already ten years old and will probably run for at least another ten), but it can wait.

(A chunk of this code is our password propagation system, but there's an outside chance that we'll wind up using LDAP in the future and so won't need anything like the current programs.)

As a side note, moving our spares system over to a new environment has been an interesting experience, partly because getting it running initially was a pretty easy thing. But that's another entry.

sysadmin/Python3ForOurNewTools written at 00:41:13; Add Comment

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