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June 18, 2023

The Difference Between Root Certificate Authorities, Intermediates, and Resellers

It happens every so often: some organization that sells publicly-trusted SSL certificates does something monumentally stupid, like generating, storing, and then intentionally disclosing all of their customers' private keys (Trustico), letting private keys be stolen via XSS (ZeroSSL), or most recently, literally exploiting remote code execution in ACME clients as part of their issuance process (HiCA aka QuantumCA).

When this happens, people inevitably refer to the certificate provider as a certificate authority (CA), which is an organization with the power to issue trusted certificates for any domain name. They fear that the integrity of the Internet's certificate authority system has been compromised by the "CA"'s incompetence. Something must be done!

But none of the organizations listed above are CAs - they just take certificate requests and forward them to real CAs, who validate the request and issue the certificate. The Internet is safe - from these organizations, at least.

In this post, I'm going to define terms like certificate authority, root CA, intermediate CA, and reseller, and explain whom you do and do not need to worry about.

Note that I'm going to talk only about publicly-trusted SSL certificate authorities - i.e those which are trusted by mainstream web browsers.

Certificate Authority Certificates

"Certificate authority" is a label that can apply both to SSL certificates and to organizations. A certificate is a CA if it can be used to issue certificates which will be accepted by browsers. There are two types of CA certificates: root and intermediate.

Root CA certificates, also known as "trust anchors" or just "roots", are shipped with your browser. If you poke around your browser's settings, you can find a list of root CA certificates.

Intermediate CA certificates, also known as "subordinate CAs" or just "intermediates", are certificates with the "CA" boolean set to true in the Basic Constraints extension, and which were issued by a root or another intermediate. If you decode an intermediate CA certificate with openssl, you'll see this in the extensions section:

X509v3 Basic Constraints: critical CA:TRUE

When you connect to a website, your browser has to verify that the website's certificate was issued by a CA certificate. If the website's certificate was issued by a root, it's easy because the browser already knows the public key needed to verify the certificate's signature. If the website's certificate was issued by an intermediate, the browser has to retrieve the intermediate from elsewhere, and then verify that the intermediate was issued by a CA certificate, recurring as necessary until it reaches a root. The web server can help the browser out by sending intermediate certificates along with the website's certificate, and some browsers are able to retrieve intermediates from the URL included in the certificate's AIA (Authority Information Access) field.

The purpose of this post is to discuss organizations, so for the rest of this post, when I say "certificate authority" or "CA" I am referring to an organization, not a certificate, unless otherwise specified.

Certificate Authority Organizations

An organization is a certificate authority if and only if they hold the private key for one or more certificate authority certificates. Holding the private key for a CA certificate is a big deal because it gives the organization the power to create certificates that are valid for any domain name on the Internet. These are essentially the Keys to the Internet.

Unfortunately, figuring out who holds a CA certificate's private key is not straightforward. CA certificates contain an organization name in their subject field, and many people reasonably assume that this must be the organization which holds the private key. But as I explained earlier this year, this is often not the case. I spend a lot of time researching the certificate ecosystem, and I am not exaggerating when I say that I completely ignore the organization name in CA certificates. It is useless. You have to look at other sources, like audit statements and the CCADB, to figure out who really holds a CA certificate's key. Consequentially, just because you see a company's name in a CA certificate, it does not mean that it has a key which can be used to create certificates.

Internal vs External Intermediate Certificates

CAs aren't allowed to issue website certificates directly from root certificates, so any CA which operates a root certificate is going to have to issue themselves at least one intermediate certificate. Since the CA retains control of the private key for the intermediate, these are called internally-operated intermediate certificates. Most intermediate certificates are internally-operated.

CAs are also able to issue intermediate certificates whose private key is held by another organization, making the other organization a certificate authority too. These are called externally-operated intermediate certificates, and there are two reasons they exist.

The more legitimate reason is that the other organization operates, or intends to operate, root certificates, and would like to issue certificates which work in older browsers whose trust stores don't include their roots. By getting an intermediate from a more-established CA, they can issue certificates which chain back to a root that is in more trust stores. This is called cross-signing, and a well-known example is Identrust cross-signing Let's Encrypt.

The less-savory reason is that the other organization would like to become a certificate authority without having to go through the onerous process of asking each browser to include them. Historically, this was a huge loophole which allowed organizations to become CAs with less oversight and thus less investment into security and compliance. Thankfully, this loophole is closing, and nowadays Mozilla and Chrome require CAs to obtain approval before issuing externally-operated intermediates to organizations which aren't already trusted CAs. I would not be surprised if browsers eventually banned the practice outright, leaving cross-signing as the only acceptable use case for externally-operated intermediates.

Certificate Resellers

There's no standard definition of certificate reseller, but I define it as any organization which provides certificates which they do not issue themselves. When someone requests a certificate from a reseller, the reseller forwards the request to a certificate authority, which validates the request and issues the certificate. The reseller has no access to the CA certificate's private key and no ability to cause issuance themselves. Typically, the reseller will use an API (ACME or proprietary) to request certificates from the CA. My company, SSLMate, is a reseller (though these days we mostly focus on Certificate Transparency monitoring).

The relationship between the reseller and the CA can take many forms. In some cases, the reseller may enter into an explicit reseller agreement with the CA and get access to special pricing or reseller-only APIs. In other cases, the reseller might obtain certificates from the CA using the same API and pricing available to the general public. The reseller might not even pay the CA - there's nothing stopping someone from acting like a reseller for free CAs like Let's Encrypt. For example, DNSimple provides paid certificates issued by Sectigo right alongside free certificates issued by Let's Encrypt. The CA might not know that their certificates are being resold - Let's Encrypt, for instance, allows anyone to create an anonymous account.

An organization may be a reseller of multiple CAs, or even be both a reseller and a CA. A reseller might not get certificates directly from a CA, but via a different reseller (SSLMate did this in the early days because it was the only way to get good pricing without making large purchase commitments).

A reseller might just provide certificates to customers, or they might use the certificates to provide a larger service, such as web hosting or a CDN (for example, Cloudflare).

White-Label / Branded Intermediate Certificates

Ideally, it would be easy to distinguish a reseller from a CA. However, most resellers are middlemen who provide no value over getting a certificate directly from a CA, and they don't want people to know this. So, for the right price, a CA will issue themselves an internally-operated intermediate CA certificate with the reseller's name in the organization field, and when the reseller requests a certificate, the CA will issue the certificate from the "branded" intermediate certificate instead of from an intermediate certificate with the CA's name in it.

The reseller does not have access to the private key of the branded intermediate certificate. Except for the name, everything about the branded intermediate certificate - like the security controls and the validation process - is exactly the same as the CA's non-branded intermediates. Thus, the mere existence of a branded intermediate certificate does not in any way affect the integrity of the certificate authority ecosystem, regardless of how untrustworthy, incompetent, or malicious the organization named in the certificate is.

What Should Worry You?

I spend a lot of time worrying about bad certificate authorities, but bad resellers don't concern me. A bad reseller can harm only their own customers, but a bad certificate authority can harm the entire Internet. Yeah, it sucks if you choose a reseller who screws you, but it's no different from choosing a bad hosting provider, domain registrar, or any of the myriad other vendors needed to host a website. As always, caveat emptor. In contrast, you can pick the best, most trustworthy certificate authority around, and some garbage CA you've never heard of can still issue an attacker a certificate for your domain. This is why web browsers tightly regulate CAs, but not resellers.

Unfortunately, this doesn't stop people from freaking out when a two-bit reseller with a branded intermediate (such as Trustico, ZeroSSL, or HiCA/QuantumCA) does something awful. People flood the mozilla-dev-security-policy mailing list to voice their concerns, including those who have little knowledge of certificates and have never posted there before. These discussions are a distraction from far more important issues. While the HiCA discussion was devolving into off-topic blather, the certificate authority Buypass disclosed in an incident report that they have a domain validation process which involves their employees manually looking up and interpreting CAA records. They are far from the only CA which does domain validation manually despite it being easy to automate, and it's troubling because having a human involved gives attackers an opening to exploit mistakes, bribery, or coercion to get unauthorized certificates for any domain. Buypass' incident response, which blames "human error" instead of addressing the root cause, won't make headlines on Hacker News or be shared on Twitter with the popcorn emoji, but it's actually far more concerning than the worst comments a reseller has ever made.

About the Author

I've reported over 50 certificate authority compliance issues, and uncovered evidence that led to the distrust of multiple certificate authorities and Certificate Transparency logs. My research has prompted changes to ACME and Mozilla's Root Store Policy. My company, SSLMate, offers a JSON API for searching Certificate Transparency logs and Cert Spotter, a service to monitor your domains for unauthorized, expiring, or incorrectly-installed certificates.

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Reader Scott Rogers on 2023-06-18 at 21:00:

Nice write up, Andrew! You mentioned the Trustico incident where they intentionally emailed their customer's private keys out in order to sabotage their CA relationship (private keys they never should've had in the first place). While that's was a truly shocking event, what's even more bizarre is that another CA was more than happy to immediately let Trustico hitch their wagon to them to gain their business knowing full well what they had just done.


Reader Bruce on 2023-06-22 at 11:42:

Hi Andrew,

Regarding white label CAs. I assume these are normally operated by a root CA on behalf of a customer such as a reseller. I also assume that the risk of compliance issues are greatly reduced. I do understand that when you review the certificate subject that the viewer cannot tell it is a white label CA. Should we consider adding content to the certificate to address this issue? This could be done with a certificate policy OID and maybe a qualifier to provide more information. There is probably other ideas, but I am thinking that adding some content to the certificate is easy to implement and could be provided in all new white label CA certificates.

Thanks, Bruce.


Andrew Ayer on 2023-06-22 at 15:20:

Hi Bruce - I don't think the certificate is a good place to put this information because it might not remain accurate for the lifetime of the certificate. For example, a CA could start out operating an intermediate internally but later transfer the key material to another organization. It would better for certificate viewers to consult the CCADB. That's not as simple as decoding information in the certificate, but it's necessary to get accurate information.


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