Escaping the Same-origin Policy for PKIjs

PKIjs enables you to build rich PKI-aware applications inside of the browser, that said the browser implements a security policy called the Same-origin Policy that restricts the code running on the page from accessing resources served from other locations.

There is also a related capability that allows a remote server to state what origins can interact with it, this capability is called Cross-Origin Resource Sharing (CORS).

This background is important since the associated standards for PKI presume the client will be able to reach the Certificate Authority that issued the certificate to check revocation status (OCSP and CRL) as well as potentially fetch issuer certificates.

Unfortunately, the WebPKI CRL and OCSP responders do not set these headers, as such for a web page to fetch these resources an intermediate proxy is needed to enable your web application to access these servers.

There are lots of great resources on how to configure Nginx as forward-proxy. The problem is you do not want to be used as an open forward proxy. In this case, what we want to do is have a virtual host that will proxy request on behalf of the client to the appropriate origin server. For example sake, let’s say we have a host It is straightforward to configure Nginx as an open forward proxy and there are a lot of examples on the internet showing how to do this. That said we do not want to create an open proxy to be abused so we want some constraints:

  1. Only forward proxy to a whitelisted set of hosts,
  2. Only proxy specific methods (POST and GET),
  3. Rate limited the client to make it more difficult to abuse.

To enable this we want to be able to pass a query string to Nginx that contains the URL we want the request forwarded to, for example,{urlencoded url}

A configuration that does this might look something like the following:

map "$request_method:$uri" $whitelist {
default "deny";
~^POST:/&url=http:/ "allow";
~^GET:/&url=http:/ "allow";

limit_req_zone $binary_remote_addr zone=proxy:10m rate=5r/m;

server {
 listen 80 default_server;
 location / {
 limit_req zone=proxy burst=5;
 if ($whitelist = deny) { return 403; break; }
 if ($uri ~ \&url\=(https?):/([^\/]*)(.+)) { set $myproto $1; set $myhost $2; set $myuri $3; }
 if ($myproto = http) { proxy_pass http://$myhost$myuri; break; }
 if ($myproto = https) { proxy_pass https://$myhost$myuri; break; }

NOTE: It seems that Nginx has a bug where when tokenizing it messes with the URL-encoded value stripping out some characters (including the /). To work around this in the above configuration we match on a single slash, this still works because this stripping appears consistent but does not effect the $uri value which is passed to the origin server.

NOTE: Unfortunately to accomplish the above we needed to use the if statement which has some downsides. If you know of how to accomplish the above without the use of them, or how to use less of them please let me know.

With this, the browser is now able to make requests to a limited set of hosts once every 12 seconds.

But what if you want this forward proxy( to exist in a different domain  from the application (  By default, the browser will not allow this but thankfully we can use  Cross-Origin Resource Sharing (CORS) to tell the clients they can send requests to our proxy, you do this by returning two additional headers to the client:

Access-Control-Allow-Methods: POST, GET

With these two headers set, the browser will allow the application to send both POST and GETs to our proxy.

But what if we want to communicate with multiple servers? Unfortunately, the CORS specification only allows the server to set a single origin in this header. It recommends that cases that require access to multiple origins set the header dynamically. This, of course, requires the server to have knowledge of what the client needs and if you are building a Single Page Application it’s quite likely the server doesn’t have that context.

Thankfully it does support a wildcard so if you have multiple application domains you want your proxy to be accessible from you can specify *:

Access-Control-Allow-Origin: *

This approach works around the multiple origin limitations of CORS but has its own issues, for example:

  1. Your server is now an unauthenticated network proxy that can be abused,
  2. If the servers you include in the whitelist can also serve active content they become useful to an attacker,
  3. Your server now has knowledge of which certificates are being validated by the client,

Neither of these approaches is perfect but they both allow you to get the information necessary to validate certificates using PKIjs within the browser.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *