What's the right UX for an expired certificate?

Every once in a while, I encounter some variation of the following question: how can a TLS certificate go from perfectly acceptable one day to completely insecure the next? In other words, why does the browser show a scary full-page warning for a certificate that expired one day, or even one hour, ago – the same as a certificate that is self-signed, chains to an unknown root, or presents the wrong name? The premise behind these questions is that an expired certificate (especially one that is recently expired) is not as bad as a certificate with some other type of validation error, and thus the warning UX shouldn’t be as severe.

My answer to this question is three-fold: there are historical and security reasons to use the same UX for all different types of certificate validation errors, and there is a set of warning design problems to consider too.

Looking at these reasons in more detail:

Historical reasons

Historically, browser designers just didn’t put that much thought into certificate errors, and I suspect that using a customized UX for expired certificates was just not on their radar. Thus it became typical for all types of certificate errors to share the same warning UX. In other words, it’s the status quo, and maybe no one really thought that much about changing it or cared enough to do so.

I will note that the warning UX for expired certificates has evolved a bit over time. Some browsers now try to detect when a certificate appears to be expired due to an incorrect client clock and prompt the user to fix their clock. However, I’m not sure if there’s ever been any appetite to go beyond that.

Security reasons

Depending on the certificate verifier implementation in use, it may be incorrect to treat an expired certificate as only expired. That is, a verifier may short-circuit and reject an expired certificate without checking that it is otherwise valid. Thus, making the warning UX less severe for expired certificates may be downright incorrect and insecure; it may be that there is some other, more severe security problem with the certificate that the verifier didn’t discover.

Still, suppose we write this off as a technical limitation and assume that the certificate verifier only tells us that the certificate is expired if expiration is truly the only error. Even then, there are security problems with treating expiration as a less severe error than other validation problems.

Here’s one example of this type of security problem. Expired certificates cannot generally be revoked. For example, a certificate may fall off, or not be added to, a CRL if it is expired. If an attacker compromises the key corresponding to an expired certificate, or compromises a key but then sits on it until the certificate expires, the legitimate certificate owner’s only line of defense is the browser warning UX for an expired certificate. That, in my opinion, is a compelling reason that the browser warning UX for an expired certificate should be as severe as for a known key compromise.

More generally, a browser’s idea of a secure certificate evolves over time, and there’s no guarantee that an expired certificate conforms to the requirements that the browser has for certificates today. For example, suppose the browser introduces new audit requirements for CAs. After the point at which all certificates issued under the old audit requirements have expired, it no longer makes sense to treat expired certificates as if they are as secure as currently valid certificates, even if we didn’t care about the actual date validity of certificates. These older certificates were issued under weaker audit requirements and don’t conform to the browser’s current idea of security. Certificate expiration is part of how old ideas of security are phased out and new ones are phased in, but that evolution only works if expired certificates are actually treated as insecure.

Warning design reasons

Even if you don’t buy any of my arguments above, and still think that expired certificates should have a different warning UX than other certificate errors, my question is: what is that correct UX? What would it be trying to achieve?

One answer might be that the warning UX should try to alert the server administrator that the certificate needs to be renewed, without disrupting users. At the risk of a blatant appeal to authority, I can tell you from years of experience designing browser security UI that this is a very hard balance to strike. The most effective way to get a server administrator’s attention is to get their users’ attention. And the most effective way to get users’ attention is disruptive full-page warnings. While unfortunately we didn’t publish it publicly, my team actually did some research on a similar question of how to design browser security warnings to most effectively phase out an old TLS version. We found some marginal statistical significance when using a softer warning UX to get server administrators to upgrade their TLS configurations, but the real impact to server configurations came from full-page warnings telling users that their security was at risk. (h/t to Chris Thompson for designing and running this excellent study)

Another answer might be that the warning UX should try to communicate to the user that there is some security risk, but not as much risk as for other certificate validation errors. Again, this is a very hard balance to strike; there are published negative results relating to user comprehension of certificate warnings, and I imagine that trying to get users to understand and reason about specific types of certificate warnings is even harder.

At best, I think a less severe full-page warning for expired certificates – perhaps one that is easier to bypass than the status quo certificate warning – could effectively incentivize server administrators to renew their certificates, while being slightly less disruptive or scary to users and inducing less warning fatigue. But, in light of the security reasons outlined above, I don’t think it’s the correct warning design.

Finally, and more philosophically, I think there is some version of the Zero one infinity rule buried in here somewhere. If you think that it is incorrect to show a severe full-page warning for a certificate that expired one day ago, but you think it is correct to show a severe full-page warning for a certificate that expired three years ago, where is the cutoff? At what point does an expired certificate become truly insecure? If you don’t have a principled answer to that question, then I think the answer should be either zero or infinity: either we treat certificates as fully invalid the moment they expire, or we treat even infinitely-expired certificates as (at least somewhat) valid, and I don’t think many people would argue for the latter approach.

For all of these reasons, customizing the certificate warning UX for expired certificates (beyond obviously good ideas like prompting users to fix incorrect client clocks) feels fraught. We’re better off trying to improve deployment of automated certificate renewals so that accidentally expired certificates become far less commonplace.

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