The browsers are probably running the TLS show now

February 26, 2020

The news of the time interval is that Apple is limiting TLS certificate lifetimes to 398 days for certificates issued from September 1st onward (also, also). This effectively bypasses the CA/Browser Forum, where Google put forward a ballot on this in 2019 but couldn't get it passed (also). Specifically, it was voted down by a number of CAs; some CAs voted in favor, as did all browser vendors. Now Apple has decided to demonstrate who has actual power in this ecosystem and has simply put their foot down. What CAs want and how they voted is now irrelevant.

(Since Apple has led the way on this and all browser vendors want to do this, I expect Chrome, Firefox, and probably Microsoft Edge to follow before the end of the year.)

I wouldn't be surprised if other developments in TLS start happening this way (and if it was Apple driving them, because Apple is in some ways in the best political position to do this). At the same time it's worth noting that this is a change from how things used to be (as far as I know). Up until now, browser vendors have generally been fairly careful to build consensus and push CAs relatively lightly. If browser vendors are now going to be more aggressive about simply forcing CAs to do things, who knows what happens next.

At the same time, shortening the acceptable certificate validity period is the easiest change to force, because everyone can already issue and get shorter-lived certificates. The only way for a CA to not 'comply' with Apple's new policy would be to insist on issuing only long-lived certificates to customers against the wishes of the customers, and that's a great way to have the customers pack up and go to someone else. This is fundamentally different from a policy change that would require CAs to actively change their behavior, where the CAs could just refuse to do anything and basically dare the browser vendors to de-trust them all. On the third hand, Google more or less did force a behavior change by increasingly insisting on Certificate Transparency. Maybe we'll see more of that.

(And in a world with Let's Encrypt, most everyone has an alternative option to commercial CAs. At least right now, it seems unlikely that a browser vendor would try to force a change that LE objected to, partly because LE is now such a dominant CA. Just like browsers, LE is sort of in a position to put its foot down.)

Written on 26 February 2020.
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Last modified: Wed Feb 26 00:25:31 2020
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