When a web PKI certificate won't cut it

In recent years, setting up a public HTTPS website has gotten easier and easier, thanks to widespread automated certificate management, free certificates, inexpensive CDN support, and other developments. However, for the most part, these advancements – and the web PKI in general – are designed for publicly accessible websites. That is, a website with a publicly resolvable domain name can undergo domain name validation to get an HTTPS certificate. You can also get an HTTPS certificate for a public IP address, but this type of certificate is much more rare and less widely supported than certificates for public domain names. What you cannot do is get a publicly trusted HTTPS certificate for a non-public domain name (such as an intranet hostname) or a reserved private network or localhost IP address (such as 127.0.0.1). That is, a certificate authority like Let’s Encrypt or DigiCert will not be able to provide you with an HTTPS certificate for foo.test or 192.168.0.1 that works with an out-of-the-box client like a major web browser. This is because there’s no way for the certificate authority to validate that you are the true owner of such a name; by definition, there is no such concept of the true owner of such a name.

This deficiency affects a variety of use cases, from intranet hosts in an enterprise to media servers, IoT devices, routers, and other devices commonly found on home networks. This is problematic for several reasons:

  • First, there are many use cases where non-public hosts run web services that need authenticated encryption just as much as a public host does. Private networks are not generally secure: consider the possibility of an unsecured wifi network (e.g., a coffee shop), a weakly secured wifi network (e.g., home network with weak password or outdated encryption settings), or a wiretap. Web services accessible on such networks benefit from HTTPS as much as a public web service does.
  • Second, even in the case of a truly secure private network, there is no way for a web browser or other client to know that the network is secure. TLS/HTTPS is the security language of the web. If a browser connects to a server with TLS, then the browser considers the connection secure, and otherwise it doesn’t. In the case of a non-public domain name or IP address, the browser must assume it is using an unencrypted connection. And any unencrypted web service, regardless of the sensitivity of the data traversing that connection, places constraints on how web browsers treat encryption. This is similar to arguments for why it’s important for even “unimportant” or “non-sensitive” public websites to support HTTPS.

Currently, there’s no canonical way for non-public web services to support HTTPS, but there are a variety of approaches that have been discussed and/or implemented, with various pros and cons. In this post, I’ll survey some of these, especially focusing on a few recent developments that are in vogue. In this post, I’m focusing mostly on secure connection establishment, not on naming or discovery mechanisms. There’s a separate post to be written on naming and discovery, covering e.g. mDNS and other ways to discover and name services that don’t rely on the global DNS or public IP addresses. And I’ll also note that this list of approaches for authenticating non-public services isn’t comprehensive; this post is mostly meant to cover approaches that I see coming up most often in discussions on this topic recently.

Locally installed CAs

Everything I said above about HTTPS certificates applies to publicly trusted CAs, the CAs that are trusted out-of-the-box by major web clients. But for most web clients, users can customize the set of trusted CAs, including installing their own CAs that are mostly free to issue whatever certificates they’d like, including to non-public domain names or private IPs.

This approach is commonly used in enterprise environments, allowing managed devices to make secure connections to e.g. intranet hostnames with certificates issued by an enterprise CA that is installed on all end-user devices in the enterprise. It’s also a common approach for development use cases. However, it’s generally viewed as too fiddly, technical, and error-prone for consumer use cases like a home media server. This is becoming even more true as some clients are starting to add more friction for installing locally trusted CAs (and for good reason – which is a topic for another post).

The Plex method

Plex is a media platform that, among other things, provides a web app that lets users stream media from servers on their home networks. Filippo Valsorda has a classic writeup of how Plex establishes HTTPS connections to these local media servers. I won’t rehash the whole writeup here, but the gist of it is that Plex provisions each user’s local media servers with a regular HTTPS wildcard certificate for *.<user id>.plex.direct. Browsers access the local media servers via hostnames like 1-2-3-4.<user id>.plex.direct, which dynamically resolves to 1.2.3.4 (where 1.2.3.4 would in reality would be the IP address of the media server on the user’s local network).

The Plex approach is generally seen as an elegant and secure way to establish encrypted connections to devices on a private network. However, it suffers from one major drawback: it doesn’t work in the presence of overzealous home routers that block DNS resolutions to private IPs. This is a common security feature in home routers, meant to protect against DNS rebinding attacks, and there’s no workaround; it causes Plex to fall back to unencrypted http://.

WebRTC and WebTransport

There are some lesser-known corners of the web platform that allow clients to connect to servers with a given certificate hash, treating the connection as secure even if the certificate doesn’t chain to a trusted certificate authority. This mechanism has been around for a while in the form of WebRTC, a suite of protocols designed for peer-to-peer communication on the web. In WebRTC, connections are authenticated with self-signed certificates that applications can verify themselves outside the web PKI. Depending on your perspective, this is either a cool feature for talking to peers that can’t obtain publicly trusted HTTPS certificates, or a major loophole in the web browser security model.

A more recent specification called WebTransport (not yet widely supported) allows web applications to establish HTTP/3-based connections to participating servers. WebTransport connections can use normal web PKI certificates, or for talking to devices that don’t have normal certificates, a certificate hash that doesn’t need to chain to a certificate authority and can be verified by the application, as in WebRTC.

The major downside of WebRTC and WebTransport are that they are designed for specific use cases, such as streaming peer-to-peer media, and they can be quite cumbersome to adapt for other use cases. A developer can’t simply set up a regular HTTP server, install a certificate, and build a website that accesses that server via WebRTC or WebTransport. Instead, the server has to support particular protocols, and the web client has to access data and resources over these protocols. For example, suppose a website wants to load an image from a web server on a private network. The website can’t simply do so via <img src=”https://local-web-server-name/image.jpg”/>; instead, the local web server has to, for example, support HTTP/3 and WebTransport, and the developer has to write JavaScript code to make a WebTransport connection, and then define and implement a protocol on top of the WebTransport connection to fetch the image resource and dynamically insert it into the page. This might get easier over time as better web server and library support matures, but at the moment it’s quite far off the well-lit path.

Even with better ecosystem support, any use case that shoehorns something HTTP-like into WebRTC or WebTransport is going to end up with some weird properties. For example, resources fetched in this way won’t benefit from caching or other HTTP features built into the browser. Even the security properties are a bit weird; in fact, the WebTransport spec editors are currently in the process of incorporating a nuanced discussion about how certificate hashes compare to typical public web PKI certificates in security.

If you squint, WebRTC and WebTransport can be seen as representatives from a class of approaches that use a public web service to bootstrap a secure connection to a non-public web service. The Plex approach also uses a public website for bootstrapping, though there’s a subtle difference. In Plex, the public website is used for discovery: it tells users what name to use to access their non-public web services, and thereafter those hostnames are authenticated in the normal web PKI way. In contrast, when using something like WebRTC or WebTransport, the public website is used to boostrap authentication: it tells the browser what certificate should be used to authenticate a non-public web server. While pretty technical in nature, this distinction between discovery and authentication can be rather important for usability, depending on the use case. For example, one could imagine a user bookmarking a Plex server on their local network and later accessing it directly while offline, without being able to access the public website for bootstrapping. This kind of offline access model doesn’t apply very cleanly to WebRTC or WebTransport, where the user needs an online publicly accessible website to make the WebRTC or WebTransport connection to the server on the private network.

Trust-on-first-use

Most of the above methods can be implemented today; they don’t rely on browsers implementing any new technology. (The exception is WebTransport, which is still in development and not widely supported by major web browsers yet.)

There are some different models that either browsers or device vendors or both could adopt but which haven’t been fully explored or implemented yet. A document has been circulating for a while (I don’t know who wrote it, unfortunately) that proposes a trust-on-first-use (TOFU) approach for this problem. In this model, the browser shows a special UI instead of a typical certificate error warning when it encounters a self-signed certificate for a non-public IP address or domain name. After the user accepts this special warning, the browser remembers the certificate or key and doesn’t show the warning again. As a corollary, the browser must expand its origin concept to include the remembered key or certificate as part of the origin. Otherwise, two different services could claim the same non-unique name and attack each other or pollute each others’ application state.

Personally I find this approach a bit unsatisfying. It dumps a lot of nuanced security reasoning onto the user. It discourages key rotation; the UX degrades with shorter-lived keys. And it’s not clear how it would apply to loading subresources from the local network (as opposed to loading a top-level page from the local network). However, it has one major upside: browsers can adopt it without requiring much work from device vendors. It’ll work out of the box with any device that is currently using a self-signed certificate.

Shared secrets

The final approach I’ll discuss is rather aspirational. Various people have proposed that browsers support a special mode by which a user can enter a secret that is engraved or displayed on the device to which they want to connect. This secret can be used to bootstrap a secure connection via a PAKE, which can be integrated into TLS. As with a TOFU model, the browser would need to remember the secret for a particular origin and incorporate something about the secure connection into the origin concept to avoid polluting origins cross-application when a non-unique name is reused. Overall, I think this approach is a better UX than the TOFU model, but it’s still a bit awkward for cross-origin requests (e.g., a public website loading a resource from a device on a private network). In recent years, browsers have moved away from trying to communicate these cross-origin trust decisions to users because they’re so complex and don’t match users’ mental models of how websites work.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the shared secret/PAKE approach is that it would require device vendors to do some pretty significant implementation work. It remains unclear if device vendors have the right incentives and resources to do this work – for a shared secret approach or for any other method that would be non-trivial for them to adopt. Some device vendors have even claimed that their devices are too underpowered to do any form of TLS at all. If we accept that claim, all of these approaches are dead in the water for such devices. It’s also unclear what the plan would be for the gazillions of non-updateable devices already in the field. Ultimately device vendor incentives are quite possibly the biggest hurdle for tackling the problem of how to securely connect to devices with non-public names, rather than the technical challenges.

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