MSC1711: X.509 certificate verification for federation connections
TLS connections for server-to-server communication currently rely on an approach borrowed from the Perspectives project to provide certificate verification, rather than the more normal model using certificates signed by trusted Certificate Authorities. This document sets out the reasons that this has not been a success, and suggests that we should instead revert to the CA model.
Background: the failure of the Perspectives approach
The Perspectives approach replaces the conventional hierarchy of trust provided by the Certificate Authority model with a large number of "notary" servers distributed around the world. The intention is that the notary servers regularly monitor remote servers and observe the certificates they present; when making a connection to a new site, a client can correlate the certificate it presents with that seen by the notary servers. In theory this makes it very hard to mount a Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attack, because it would require intercepting traffic between the target server and a large number of the notary servers.
It is notable that the Perspectives project itself appears to have largely been abandoned: its website has largely been repurposed, the Firefox extension does not work with modern versions of Firefox, the mailing list is inactive, and several of the (ten) published notary servers are no longer functional. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, though clearly it never gained widespread adoption.
When Matrix was originally designed in 2014, the Perspectives project was heavily active, and avoiding dependencies on the relatively centralised Certificate Authorities was attractive, in accordance with Matrix's design as a decentralised protocol. However, this has not been a success in practice.
Matrix was unable to make use of the existing notary servers (largely because
we wanted to extend the protocol to include signing keys): the intention was
that, as the Matrix ecosystem grew, public Matrix servers would act as notary
servers. However, in practice we have ended up in a situation where almost 1 every Matrix homeserver either uses
matrix.org as the
sole notary, or does no certificate verification at all. Far from avoiding the
centralisation of the Certificate Authorities, the entire protocol is therefore
dependent on a single point of control at
matrix.org - and because
matrix.org only monitors from a single location, the protection against MitM
attacks is weak.
It is also clear that the Perspectives approach is poorly-understood. It is a common error for homeservers to be deployed behind reverse-proxies which make the Perspectives-based approach unreliable. The CA model, for all its flaws, is at least commonly used, which makes it easier for administrators to deploy (secure) homeservers, and allows server implementations to leverage existing libraries.
We propose that Matrix homeservers should be required to present valid TLS certificates, signed by a known Certificate Authority, on their federation port.
In order to ease transition and give administrators time to switch to a signed certificate, we will continue to follow the current, perspectives-based approach for servers whose TLS certificates fail validation.
However, this fallback will be strictly time-limited, and Matrix S2S spec r0
will not accept self-signed certificates, nor will it include the
tls_fingerprints property of the
endpoints. Synapse 1.0 will not accept self-signed certificates by default.
matrix.org team will proactively attempt to reach out to homeserver
administrators who do not update their certificates in the coming weeks.
The process of determining which CAs are trusted to sign certificates would be implementation-specific, though it should almost certainly make use of existing operating-system support for maintaining such lists. It might also be useful if administrators could override this list, for the purpose of setting up a private federation using their own CA.
It would also be useful for administrators to be able to disable the
certificate checks for a whitelist of domains/netmasks. This would be useful
for testing, or for networks that provide server verification themselves,
such as like
.onion domains on Tor or
fc00::/8 IPs on cjdns.
Interaction with SRV records
With the use of
SRV records, it is possible for the hostname of a homeserver
to be quite different from the matrix domain it is hosting. For example, if
there were an SRV record at
_matrix._tcp.matrix.org which pointed to
server.example.com, then any federation requests for
matrix.org would be
server.example.com. The question arises as to which certificate
server.example.com should present.
In short: the server should present a certificate for the matrix domain
matrix.org in the above example). This ensures that traffic cannot be
intercepted by a MitM who can control the DNS response for the
(perhaps via cache-poisoning or falsifying DNS responses).
This will be in line with the current
in the Federation API specification for the
Host, and by implication, the TLS
Server Name Indication 2. It is also consistent with
the recommendations of
RFC6125 and the
conventions established by the XMPP protocol (per RFC6120.
HTTP-Based Public Key Pinning (HPKP) and Certificate transparency are both HTTP extensions which attempt to work around some of the deficiencies in the CA model, by making it more obvious if a CA has issued a certificate incorrectly.
HPKP has not been particularly successful, and is deprecated in Google Chrome as of April 2018. Certificate transparency, however, is seeing widespread adoption from Certificate Authories and HTTP clients.
This proposal sees both technologies as optional techniques which could be provided by homeserver implementations. We encourage but do not mandate the use of Certificate Transparency.
The Perspectives approach is also currently used for exchanging the keys that are used by homeservers to sign Matrix events and federation requests (the "signing keys"). Problems similar to those covered here also apply to that mechanism. This is discussed at #1685.
There are well-known problems with the CA model, including a number of widely-published incidents in which CAs have issued certificates incorrectly. It is therefore important to consider alternatives to the CA model.
Improving support for the Perspectives model
In principle, we could double-down on the Perspectives approach, and make an effort
to get servers other than
matrix.org used as notary servers. However, there
remain significant problems with such an approach:
Perspectives remain complex to configure correctly. Ideally, administrators need to make conscious choices about which notaries to trust, which is hard to do, especially for newcomers to the ecosystem. (In practice, people use the out-of-the-box configuration, which is why everyone just uses
A correct implementation of Perspectives really needs to take into account more than the latest state seen by the notary servers: some level of history should be taken into account too.
Essentially, whilst we still believe the Perspectives approach has some merit, we believe it needs further research before it can be relied upon. We believe that the resources of the Matrix ecosystem are better spent elsewhere.
DNS-Based Authentication of Named Entities (DANE) can be used as an alternative to the CA model. (It is arguably more appropriately used together with the CA model.)
It is not obvious to the author of this proposal that DANE provides any material advantages over the CA model. In particular it replaces the centralised trust of the CAs with the centralised trust of the DNS registries.
Beyond the problems already discussed with the CA model, requiring signed certificates comes with a number of downsides.
More difficult setup
Configuring a working, federating homeserver is a process fraught with pitfalls. This proposal adds the requirement to obtain a signed certificate to that process. Even with modern intiatives such as Let's Encrypt, this is another procedure requiring manual intervention across several moving parts.
On the other hand: obtaining an SSL certificate should be a familiar process to anybody capable of hosting a production homeserver (indeed, they should probably already have one for the client port). This change also opens the possibility of putting the federation port behind a reverse-proxy without the need for additional configuration. Hopefully making the certificate usage more conventional will offset the overhead of setting up a certificate.
Furthermore, homeserver implementations could provide an implementation of the ACME protocol and integration with Let's Encrypt, to make it easier for administrators to get started. (This would of course be implementation-specific, and administrators who wanted to keep control of the certificate creation process would be free to do so).
Inferior support for IP literals
Whilst it is possible to obtain an SSL cert which is valid for a literal IP
address, this typically requires purchase of a premium certificate; in
particular, Let's Encrypt will not issue certificates for IP literals. This may
make it impractical to run a homeserver which uses an IP literal, rather than a
DNS name, as its
It has long been the view of the
matrix.org administrators that IP literals
are only really suitable for internal testing. Those who wish to use them for
that purpose could either disable certificate checks inside their network, or
use their own CA to issue certificates.
Inferior support for hidden services (
It is currently possible to correctly route traffic to a homeserver on a
.onion domain, provided any remote servers which may need to reach that
server are configured to route to such addresses via the Tor network. However,
it can be difficult to get a certificate for a
.onion domain (again, Let's
Encrypt do not support them).
The reasons for requiring a signed certificate (or indeed, for using TLS at
all) are weakened when traffic is routed via the Tor network. Administrators
using the Tor network could disable certificate checks for
We believe that requiring homeservers to present an X.509 certificate signed by a recognised Certificate Authority will improve security, reduce centralisation, and eliminate some common deployment pitfalls.