The (soon to be) not-so Common Name

If you are reading this post you are probably familiar with the use of digital certificates in SSL even if you are you may not be familiar with their history. Before we go there though we should start with what, at its core a digital certificate actually is.

Fundamentally a digital certificate is a binding of entitlements and constraints to a key, in other words they say things like “The holder of the private key associated with this certificate can rightfully use the name Ryan Hurst when signing emails”.

When originally conceived they were to be used to help bind subjects (people and resources) to their representations in directories. This is why the Subject Name in a certificate is structured as a Distinguished Name (DN) as this is how a directory uniquely identify a subject.

This makes sense when looking up an encryption key for a user in an enterprise directory but not so well on the Internet where there is no global directory of users.

This brings us to SSL, it was introduced in the mid 1990s and at the time nearly every large enterprise was already deploying Directories and Certificate Authorities as part of their identity management frameworks. The technology of X.509 was tested, broadly accepted and fit the bill for the problem the designers of the protocol had so they included it as is.

At the time there was only one way to represent concept of a subject of a certificate and that was the Common Name (CN) so they chose to put the DNS name of the SSL server there. This was technically acceptable but was a re-purposing of a field that was really intended for a users actual name.

After SSL was finalized the IETF released their profile of X.509 for use on the Internet this standard introduced the concept of a Subject Alternative Name (SAN) where you can put names that are not associated with a directory. The problem is that ship had sailed, by the late 90s when this was standardized everyone had already settled on using the Common Name.

This led us down a bad path, first of all many servers (especially today) have multiple DNS names and application that supported only the Common Name field couldn’t work with a single certificate with more than one DNS name in it. This was addressed in the short term by using a single certificate for each DNS name but this came at a high cost, we also needed to use a single IP address for each domain name.

Another problem with this approach is applications never really knew what to expect in the Common Name field. Is the value in that field a person’s name or is it a DNS name? This is a problem because often times there are rules you need to use to validate a piece of data before using it and this is especially true for DNS names.

For these reasons (and more) since at least 1999 (when RFC 2459 was standardized) we have been on a slow path to moving away from the use of Common Names for domain names to using Subject Alternative Names.

Fast forward to 2012 some Stanford researchers publish a paper titled “The most dangerous code in the world: validating SSL certificates in non-browser software” which identifies a bunch of applications who fail to do the most basic certificate validation tasks correctly and as a result are the source of a bunch of security vulnerabilities.

These applications gave their users a false sense of security not out of malice but as a result of a lack of understanding of the technology they used to deliver on that promise. A big part of that is the complexity 18 years of technological evolution carries with it.

To address this a number of things need to change but one of the most immediate changes is what that the definition of what constitute a “valid” SSL certificate is changing to make the rule-set a little simpler for the application developer and to rule out options that are no longer considered good practice.

We see this happening in a few ways. First the CA/Browser Forum has worked with Browsers to define a set of Baseline Practices that all Certificates must meet, we are also seeing Browsers doing sanity checks to ensure these practices are in-fact followed.

These baseline requirements mandate that certificate authorities always include at least one Subject Alternative Name in the SSL certificates they issue, this means that today an application doesn’t need to look in both the Common Name and the Subject Alternative Name they only need to check the latter.

Currently most Certificate Authorities will include the first DNS Name from the Subject Alternative Name in the Common Name field also but this is done primarily for legacy reasons and at some point in the not so distant future will stop.

When it does certificates will be a little smaller and developers lives will be a little easier.



· Baseline Requirements

· Internet X.509 Public Key Infrastructure Certificate and Certificate Revocation List (CRL) Profile

· Microsoft Security Advisory: Update for minimum certificate key length

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