Secure Contexts

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This is a mini-rant, a short essay refuting a common misconception among users of an Internet forum. If you think this essay is FUD, feel free to explain why on the essay's talk page.

In a nutshell: Web browsers require HTTPS for some JavaScript features, making their use on private home web servers impractical.

As of 2016, certain major web browser publishers such as Mozilla[1] and Google have announced plans to make sensitive JavaScript APIs available only within sites that use HTTPS, not cleartext HTTP, as a way of encouraging more sites to implement HTTPS.

Secure Contexts

The W3C's Secure Contexts spec defines a "secure context" roughly as a document all of whose markup and scripts come from a "potentially trustworthy origin". In turn, a "potentially trustworthy origin" is any of these:

  • An origin using an authenticated scheme (https: or wss:)
  • An origin on the local computer using IP addresses in 127/8 (IPv4) or ::1/128 (IPv6)
  • An origin on the local computer using a scheme that the browser considers authenticated (file: and possibly packaged browser extensions)
  • An origin that the user has "configured as a trustworthy origin", through a user interface that has not been specified

In particular, this does not include local area networks using private address space as described in RFC 1918 (10/8, 172.16/12, or 192.168/16). This means that by default, a browser will treat a server on the local area network (LAN) in your home no differently from a random PC connected to a public Wi-Fi hotspot in a restaurant. So until user agents[2] provide a way to mark an origin as "configured as a trustworthy origin", the only way to make a computer other than the local computer trusted is to implement HTTPS.

Certificate

In a nutshell: HTTPS over LAN needs cert which needs domain which costs $$/yr. LE issuance to DDNS subdomains is rate-limited until PSL add backlog clears.

HTTPS is built on Transport Layer Security (TLS), which associates a public key with a server using an X.509 certificate whose subject alternate name (SAN) matches the server's hostname. The certificate is issued and digitally signed by a certificate authority (CA) that the device trusts. In order to gain the trust of device makers and web browser publishers, a CA must show evidence that it follows the practices described in the Baseline Requirements (BR) published by the CA/Browser Forum. The BR require the hostname in a certificate to be a fully-qualified domain name (FQDN), not a private IP address or a made-up top-level domain (TLD), such as .local or .internal.

The practicality of providing a name for a server depends on several factors: whether it is reachable through the Internet or only a LAN, whether it is a production or testing server, and whether the server's owner is experienced in information technology (IT) or a novice in a home environment. I'll explore several common scenarios:

For a server reachable through the Internet, the requirement of a FQDN poses little trouble, even hobbyists, as the owner of a domain can obtain certificates for plenty of machines that it operates in that domain through the Let's Encrypt CA.

A production server on a corporate LAN is managed by IT professionals. The administrator can put the server on a subdomain of a corporate-owned domain and use split-horizon DNS to show some records to the general public (including the CA) and other records only to the internal network. This has the side effect of disclosing internal server hostnames through DNS and Certificate Transparency.

For a testing server on a developer's LAN, it's often enough to operate a private CA using free software such as OpenSSL. The developer can then give the test server a private name, use split-horizon DNS to make this name resolve internally, issue a certificate for that name to the test server, and deploy the private CA's root certificate on all client devices used for internal testing. A business can also use this method to avoid publishing internal hostnames at the expense of making access more tedious for employees who bring their own device (BYOD). However, this method does not work for Android 7 and later, as applications no longer trust user-installed CAs without explicitly opting in through the manifest,[3] and there's no evidence that the Google Chrome browser opts in.

Names for home LAN hosts

The toughest problem is internal production servers for guests and other inexperienced users. Some web applications are intended for use by those people who happen to be authorized to connect to a particular private network at any given time. This may include a network gateway appliance (or "router") for administration of a home network and its connection to a home ISP, a printer or network attached storage (NAS) server for friends and family visiting a home, or a server at a museum that allows its guests to interact.[4] Requiring these non-technical users to trust a private CA isn't practical for production use. Mozilla acknowledges unavailability of a certificate from a public CA when "a device doesn't have a globally unique name" as a problem but has put off solving it.[1]

To work around the lack of PKI for the Internet of Things, it was suggested to install a private root certificate on a smartphone somehow using NFC or QR codes,[5] but this hasn't yet been deployed.

One might try obtaining a globally unique name from a dynamic DNS provider, but Let's Encrypt issues only 20 certificates per registrable domain per week,[6] which is far too low for a dynamic DNS provider with substantial traffic. For example, only 20 certificates per week may be issued for subdomains of dyn.example. But if dyn.example is on Mozilla's Public Suffix List (PSL), this makes abc.dyn.example a registrable domain because it has exactly one more label than a public suffix, this label being abc.[7] Being a registrable domain has two main consequences: cookies set on abc.dyn.example won't be visible from sites hosted on other subdomains of dyn.example, and Let's Encrypt will allow up to 20 certificates per week within abc.dyn.example itself. But since Let's Encrypt entered general availability, there has been a huge backlog for dynamic DNS providers to get onto the PSL.[8] (In mid-2017, someone claimed that PSL may finally be catching up.[9])

Thus each operator of a private server open to LAN visitors must purchase his own domain name, and if an application ends up installed on a million home servers, that makes a million domains that have to be purchased and renewed annually. But some people, such as gravewax and silanea at Slashdot, believe every head of household on the Internet ought to own a domain, that it's just as much an expected expense of Internet use as electricity. Householders will end up having to learn how to hunt for low rates and trick the registrar into offering a renewal promotion.

In addition, Let's Encrypt did not issue wildcard certificates prior to January 2018.[10] This causes problems for users of software that follows a security model like that of the Sandstorm productivity suite, which uses a wildcard DNS record and generates a new random subdomain for each new user session as a means of thwarting cross-site attacks. Though users of Sandstorm itself can use the Sandcats.io CA, other self-hosted free software projects may not have that luxury.

Use cases

The administration interface for an Internet gateway appliance, also called a home router, presents username and password fields. This is commonly accessed by navigation to the IP address, such as http://192.168.1.1. But because the scheme is not https and private IPs are not localhost, both Chrome and Firefox show a warning that the user is entering a password into an insecure form.

The Presentation API allows a web application to display its output in an external monitor. This is useful for showing video on a TV while controlling playback from a PC or smartphone. But in Chrome 61 and later, the Presentation API requires HTTPS.[11] This means a home network-attached storage (NAS) appliance cannot use the HTTP protocol to present images, videos, or other media stored on the appliance's drives.

To avoid warnings and missing JavaScript functionality, the internal server must use HTTPS, which requires the user to buy a domain and configure DNS for the domain so that the NAS can obtain the appropriate certificate from Let's Encrypt. This imposes a recurring monetary cost and may prove too challenging for non-technical users.

Means of validation

A certificate authority can determine whether a particular customer qualifies for a domain-validated certificate in one of three ways. Not all CAs support all methods.

  • Sending a challenge value through SMTP to a well-known administrative address at that domain, such as hostmaster@example.com, postmaster@example.com, or webmaster@example.com, and having the user paste the value into a web form at the CA.
  • Having the customer place a particular challenge value in the web root of a publicly visible HTTP server on that hostname, and reading it back from that server.
  • Having the customer place a particular challenge value in a TXT record for the server's hostname in its DNS zone, and reading it back from DNS several minutes later, once the old value has expired from intermediate DNS caches.

As of 2017, Let's Encrypt supports the HTTP and DNS methods, not the mail method. But because an internal web server is not publicly visible, only the DNS method will work. This means the operator of a LAN will have to choose a dynamic DNS provider that both is on the PSL and allows prompt updates to a hostname's TXT record.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 "Deprecating Non-Secure HTTP: Frequently Asked Questions". Mozilla, 2015-05. Accessed 2016-08-12.
  2. "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0". W3C, 1999-05-05. Accessed 2017-07-10.
  3. "Add & remove certificates". Accessed 2017-04-18.
  4. greggman's question
  5. Minutes of a W3C meeting. W3C, 2015-10.
  6. "Rate Limits". Let's Encrypt. Accessed 2016-08-12.
  7. "View the Public Suffix List". Mozilla. Accessed 2016-09-16.
  8. Public Suffix List issue #236. GitHub, 2016-06-15. Accessed 2016-09-16.
  9. Tweet by Hector Martin on 2017-06-11
  10. Josh Aas. "Wildcard Certificates Coming January 2018". Let's Encrypt, 2017-07-06. Accessed 2017-07-06.
  11. Joseph Medley. "Deprecations and Removals in Chrome 61".

External links