Securing Access using TLS/SSL Client Certificates

This tutorial will guide you in setting up authentication using TLS/SSL Client Certificates. It is a simple one as it would not delve into details about integration with server-side apps. Instead, it simply gives you instructions on how to set up Client Certificate as means to prevent unwanted parties from accessing your website.

For example, one such scenario where it may come useful, is limiting access to sensitive things on the server, like phpMyAdmin. phpMyAdmin for example handles sensitive data (such as database authentication) and does in plain HTTP, which may pose several security risks. Even if the data would be encrypted, someone with access to the application, might find vulnerabilities in it and exploit the relatively high-privileges it got to compromise the server. The solution to this, is also limit who has access to the application at all. A possible solution, which I’ve used, is to limit access to only to the local machine and using SSH or a VPN Tunnel to access phpMyAdmin. A better solution would be to use TLS/SSL Client Certificates. They operate on the connection level and provide both encryption and authentication. They are easier to setup than VPN tunnels and easier to use.

Note that limiting access based on TLS/SSL Client Certificate can only be done on the sub-domain level, because it happens as part of the connection, before any specific HTTP request can be made.

Most of the tutorial is not HTTP server-specific, however the server configuration part relates to Nginx. As other servers (such as Lighttpd) use a very similar configuration for Client Certificates, adapting the instruction should be straightforward.

Creating a CA

The two commands below will create CA private key and a corresponding self-signed certificate for you to sign the TLS client certificates with.

openssl genpkey -algorithm RSA -pkeyopt rsa_keygen_bits:2048 -aes-128-cbc -out ca.key
openssl req -new -x509 -days 365 -sha256 -key ca.key -out ca.pem

The first command will ask you for a pass phrase for the key. It is used to protect access to the private key. You can decide to not use one by dropping the -aes-128-cbc option from the command.

The second command will ask you to provide some details to be included in the certificate. Those details will be sent to the browser by the web-server to let it know which client certificate to send back when authenticating.

Server Configuration

Upload the ca.pem that was just generated to your server. You should not upload the private key (ca.key).

The following instructions are for Nginx

ssl_client_certificate /path/to/ca.pem;
ssl_verify_client on; # we require client certificates to access

Assuming you already enabled TLS/SSL for the specific sub-domain, your configuration should look something like this:

server {
        server_name subdomain.example.com;

        # SSL configuration
        #
        listen 443 ssl;
        listen [::]:443 ssl;

        ssl_certificate /etc/nginx/example.pem;
        ssl_certificate_key /etc/nginx/example.key;

        ssl_client_certificate /etc/ngingx/ca.pem;
        ssl_verify_client on;

After reloading the server, check that everything is configured correctly by trying to access your site via HTTPS. It should report “400 Bad Request” and say that “No required SSL certificate was sent”.

Creating a Client Certificate

The following commands will create the private key used for the client certificate (client.key) and a corresponding Certificate Signing Request (client.csr) which the owner of the CA certificate can sign (which in the case of this tutorial will be you.

openssl genpkey -algorithm RSA -pkeyopt rsa_keygen_bits:2048 -out client.key
openssl req -new -key client.key -sha256 -out client.csr

You will be asked again to provide some details, this time about you. Those details will be available to server once your browser sends it the client certificate. You can safely leave the “challenge password” empty1.

You can add the flag -aes-128-cbc to the first command if you want the private key for the client certificate to be encrypted. If you opt for it, you will be prompted for a pass phrase just like before.

Signing a Client Certificate

The next step is to sign the certificate signing request from the last step. It is a good practice to overview it and make sure all the details are as expected, so you do not sign anything you would not intend to.

openssl req -in client.csr -text -verify -noout | less

If everything looks just fine, you can sign it with the following command.

openssl x509 -req -days 365 -in client.csr -CA ca.pem -CAkey ca.key \
    -set_serial 0x`openssl rand 16 -hex` -sha256 -out client.pem

You will be prompted for your pass phrase for ca.key if you chose one in the first step.

Installing Client Key

Now comes the final part, where we take the signed client certificate, client.pem and combine it with the private key so in can be installed in our browser.

openssl pkcs12 -export -in client.pem -inkey client.key -name "Sub-domain certificate for some name" -out client.p12

Adjust the -name parameter to your liking. It will be used to identify the certificate in various places such as the browser. If your private key was encrypted, you will be prompted to enter a pass phrase for it. Encrytion for certificates in p12 format is mandatory, so you will be prompted to enter a password for the generated file as well. It is OK to reuse the same password here, as those files are practically equivalent. Once imported to you browser, you would not need the password for normal usage, until you would like to import it to another browser.

GlobalSign provides instruction on how to actually install the p12 client certificate for browsers in Linux and Windows.

References


  1. It is used to “enhance” the security of certificate revocation request, by requiring not only knowledge of the private key, but also the challenge password. Thus, someone who got hold of your private key cannot revoke the certificate by himself. However, this is also the reason why this option is not used more often: When someone steals your private key, usually they will prefer the certificate not to be revoked. 

3 thoughts on “Securing Access using TLS/SSL Client Certificates

  1. Alex

    I get an error after generating the client certificate:

    400 Bad Request

    The SSL certificate error

    any ideas why? Reading around suggests something to do with intermediate certificate errors.
    The SSL certificate (that offers HTTPS) Is unrelated to client certificates right? So Im not sure why or how this error could be being generated. I have followed your instructions here.
    Thanks

  2. Guy Post author

    This can be due to a lot of factors. As this tutorial doesn’t use any intermediate certificates, I doubt that it is the cause for this particular error.

    You are right that the SSL cerfificate used to authenticate the server is unrelated to the client certificate. If you can post the relevant part of your server configuration, I might be able to spot the culprit.

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