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Delegated Credentials for TLS


Today we’re happy to announce support for a new cryptographic protocol that helps make it possible to deploy encrypted services in a global network while still maintaining fast performance and tight control of private keys: Delegated Credentials for TLS. We have been working with partners from Facebook, Mozilla, and the broader IETF community to define this emerging standard. We’re excited to share the gory details today in this blog post.

Also, be sure to check out the blog posts on the topic by our friends at Facebook and Mozilla!

Deploying TLS globally

Many of the technical problems we face at Cloudflare are widely shared problems across the Internet industry. As gratifying as it can be to solve a problem for ourselves and our customers, it can be even more gratifying to solve a problem for the entire Internet. For the past three years, we have been working with peers in the industry to solve a specific shared problem in the TLS infrastructure space: How do you terminate TLS connections while storing keys remotely and maintaining performance and availability? Today we’re announcing that Cloudflare now supports Delegated Credentials, the result of this work.

Cloudflare’s TLS/SSL features are among the top reasons customers use our service. Configuring TLS is hard to do without internal expertise. By automating TLS, web site and web service operators gain the latest TLS features and the most secure configurations by default. It also reduces the risk of outages or bad press due to misconfigured or insecure encryption settings. Customers also gain early access to unique features like TLS 1.3, post-quantum cryptography, and OCSP stapling as they become available.

Unfortunately, for web services to authorize a service to terminate TLS for them, they have to trust the service with their private keys, which demands a high level of trust. For services with a global footprint, there is an additional level of nuance. They may operate multiple data centers located in places with varying levels of physical security, and each of these needs to be trusted to terminate TLS.

To tackle these problems of trust, Cloudflare has invested in two technologies: Keyless SSL, which allows customers to use Cloudflare without sharing their private key with Cloudflare; and Geo Key Manager, which allows customers to choose the geographical locations in which Cloudflare should keep their keys. Both of these technologies are able to be deployed without any changes to browsers or other clients. They also come with some downsides in the form of availability and performance degradation.

Keyless SSL introduces extra latency at the start of a connection. In order for a server without access to a private key to establish a connection with a client, that servers needs to reach out to a key server, or a remote point of presence, and ask them to do a private key operation. This not only adds additional latency to the connection, causing the content to load slower, but it also introduces some troublesome operational constraints on the customer. Specifically, the server with access to the key needs to be highly available or the connection can fail. Sites often use Cloudflare to improve their site’s availability, so having to run a high-availability key server is an unwelcome requirement.

Turning a pull into a push

The reason services like Keyless SSL that rely on remote keys are so brittle is their architecture: they are pull-based rather than push-based. Every time a client attempts a handshake with a server that doesn’t have the key, it needs to pull the authorization from the key server. An alternative way to build this sort of system is to periodically push a short-lived authorization key to the server and use that for handshakes. Switching from a pull-based model to a push-based model eliminates the additional latency, but it comes with additional requirements, including the need to change the client.

Enter the new TLS feature of Delegated Credentials (DCs). A delegated credential is a short-lasting key that the certificate’s owner has delegated for use in TLS. They work like a power of attorney: your server authorizes our server to terminate TLS for a limited time. When a browser that supports this protocol connects to our edge servers we can show it this “power of attorney”, instead of needing to reach back to a customer’s server to get it to authorize the TLS connection. This reduces latency and improves performance and reliability.

The pull model
The push model

A fresh delegated credential can be created and pushed out to TLS servers long before the previous credential expires. Momentary blips in availability will not lead to broken handshakes for clients that support delegated credentials. Furthermore, a Delegated Credentials-enabled TLS connection is just as fast as a standard TLS connection: there’s no need to connect to the key server for every handshake. This removes the main drawback of Keyless SSL for DC-enabled clients.

Delegated credentials are intended to be an Internet Standard RFC that anyone can implement and use, not a replacement for Keyless SSL. Since browsers will need to be updated to support the standard, proprietary mechanisms like Keyless SSL and Geo Key Manager will continue to be useful. Delegated credentials aren’t just useful in our context, which is why we’ve developed it openly and with contributions from across industry and academia. Facebook has integrated them into their own TLS implementation, and you can read more about how they view the security benefits here.  When it comes to improving the security of the Internet, we’re all on the same team.

"We believe delegated credentials provide an effective way to boost security by reducing certificate lifetimes without sacrificing reliability. This will soon become an Internet standard and we hope others in the industry adopt delegated credentials to help make the Internet ecosystem more secure."

Subodh Iyengar, software engineer at Facebook

Extensibility beyond the PKI

At Cloudflare, we’re interested in pushing the state of the art forward by experimenting with new algorithms. In TLS, there are three main areas of experimentation: ciphers, key exchange algorithms, and authentication algorithms. Ciphers and key exchange algorithms are only dependent on two parties: the client and the server. This freedom allows us to deploy exciting new choices like ChaCha20-Poly1305 or post-quantum key agreement in lockstep with browsers. On the other hand, the authentication algorithms used in TLS are dependent on certificates, which introduces certificate authorities and the entire public key infrastructure into the mix.

Unfortunately, the public key infrastructure is very conservative in its choice of algorithms, making it harder to adopt newer cryptography for authentication algorithms in TLS. For instance, EdDSA, a highly-regarded signature scheme, is not supported by certificate authorities, and root programs limit the certificates that will be signed. With the emergence of quantum computing, experimenting with new algorithms is essential to determine which solutions are deployable and functional on the Internet.

Since delegated credentials introduce the ability to use new authentication key types without requiring changes to certificates themselves, this opens up a new area of experimentation. Delegated credentials can be used to provide a level of flexibility in the transition to post-quantum cryptography, by enabling new algorithms and modes of operation to coexist with the existing PKI infrastructure. It also enables tiny victories, like the ability to use smaller, faster Ed25519 signatures in TLS.

Inside DCs

A delegated credential contains a public key and an expiry time. This bundle is then signed by a certificate along with the certificate itself, binding the delegated credential to the certificate for which it is acting as “power of attorney”. A supporting client indicates its support for delegated credentials by including an extension in its Client Hello.

A server that supports delegated credentials composes the TLS Certificate Verify and Certificate messages as usual, but instead of signing with the certificate’s private key, it includes the certificate along with the DC, and signs with the DC’s private key. Therefore, the private key of the certificate only needs to be used for the signing of the DC.

Certificates used for signing delegated credentials require a special X.509 certificate extension (currently only available at DigiCert). This requirement exists to avoid breaking assumptions people may have about the impact of temporary access to their keys on security, particularly in cases involving HSMs and the still unfixed Bleichenbacher oracles in older TLS versions.  Temporary access to a key can enable signing lots of delegated credentials which start far in the future, and as a result support was made opt-in. Early versions of QUIC had similar issues, and ended up adopting TLS to fix them. Protocol evolution on the Internet requires working well with already existing protocols and their flaws.

Delegated Credentials at Cloudflare and Beyond

Currently we use delegated credentials as a performance optimization for Geo Key Manager and Keyless SSL. Customers can update their certificates to include the special extension for delegated credentials, and we will automatically create delegated credentials and distribute them to the edge through the Keyless SSL or Geo Key Manager. For more information, see the documentation. It also enables us to be more conservative about where we keep keys for customers, improving our security posture.

Delegated Credentials would be useless if it wasn’t also supported by browsers and other HTTP clients. Christopher Patton, a former intern at Cloudflare, implemented support in Firefox and its underlying NSS security library. This feature is now in the Nightly versions of Firefox. You can turn it on by activating the configuration option security.tls.enable_delegated_credentials at about:config. Studies are ongoing on how effective this will be in a wider deployment. There also is support for Delegated Credentials in BoringSSL.

"At Mozilla we welcome ideas that help to make the Web PKI more robust. The Delegated Credentials feature can help to provide secure and performant TLS connections for our users, and we're happy to work with Cloudflare to help validate this feature."

Thyla van der Merwe, Cryptography Engineering Manager at Mozilla

One open issue is the question of client clock accuracy. Until we have a wide-scale study we won’t know how many connections using delegated credentials will break because of the 24 hour time limit that is imposed.  Some clients, in particular mobile clients, may have inaccurately set clocks, the root cause of one third of all certificate errors in Chrome. Part of the way that we’re aiming to solve this problem is through standardizing and improving Roughtime, so web browsers and other services that need to validate certificates can do so independent of the client clock.

Cloudflare’s global scale means that we see connections from every corner of the world, and from many different kinds of connection and device. That reach enables us to find rare problems with the deployability of protocols. For example, our early deployment helped inform the development of the TLS 1.3 standard. As we enable developing protocols like delegated credentials, we learn about obstacles that inform and affect their future development.


As new protocols emerge, we'll continue to play a role in their development and bring their benefits to our customers. Today’s announcement of a technology that overcomes some limitations of Keyless SSL is just one example of how Cloudflare takes part in improving the Internet not just for our customers, but for everyone. During the standardization process of turning the draft into an RFC, we’ll continue to maintain our implementation and come up with new ways to apply delegated credentials.

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