The expiry time of Certificate Authority root certificates can be nominal (or not)

December 25, 2020

The recent news from Let's Encrypt is Extending Android Device Compatibility for Let's Encrypt Certificates, which covers how Let's Encrypt is going to keep their certificates working on old Android devices for a few more years. The core problem facing Let's Encrypt was that old Android devices don't have Let's Encrypt's own root certificate, so to trust LE issued certificates they rely on a cross-signed intermediate certificate that chains to IdenTrust's 'DST Root CA X3' certificate (cf). The problem is that both this cross-signed certificate and DST Root X3 itself expire at the end of September 2021.

DST Root CA X3 expires in 2021 mostly because it was generated at the end of September 2000, and people likely thought that 20 years ought to be long enough for any root certificate (the CA world was a different place in 2000). The LE cross-signed intermediate certificate expires at the same time because you don't issue TLS certificates that expire after the certificate they're signed by. Well, normally you don't. The workaround Let's Encrypt came up with is to generate and have cross-signed a new version of their intermediate certificate that is valid for three years, which is past the expiry time of DST Root CA X3 itself.

(Multiple versions of a single certificate can exist because a certificate is only really identified by its keypair and X.509 Subject Name.)

You might wonder how this works. The answer is that Android in particular and software in general often treats root certificates rather specially. In particular, the validity dates for root certificates are sometimes essentially advisory, with it being enough for the certificate to be in the root 'trust store'. This treatment of root certificates isn't necessarily universal (and it's certainly not standardized), so it's possible for some software in some environments to care about the expiry time of a root certificate, and other environments to not care.

(For instance, as far as I can tell the standard Go TLS certificate verification does care about the validity times of root certificates.)

There is a philosophical argument that once you've made the decision to put a CA root certificate in the trust store, you shouldn't declare it invalid just because a date has passed. In this view, validity ranges are for certificates that can be replaced by the websites supplying them, which root certificates can't be. There's another argument that you should limit CA root certificate lifetimes for the same reason that you limit the lifetimes of regular certificates; things change over time and what was safe at one point is no longer so. Perhaps in another decade there will be general agreement over how software should behave here (and all software will have been updated).

(In practice, I believe that people making long-lived pieces of hardware and software that have to use TLS should demand and turn on an option to not enforce root CA lifetimes. People always stop making software updates after a while, and that includes updates to the list of trusted CA root certificates. But how to deal with TLS and general cryptography on systems that have to live without updates for 20 years or longer is something we haven't figured out yet.)

Written on 25 December 2020.
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Last modified: Fri Dec 25 23:44:50 2020
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