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Automatic CA root certificate updates on Windows

I was recently listening to Chris Palmer talking about SSL on the PaulDotCom podcast and one thing caught my attention – the discussion on IE behavior with trusted roots certificates. It was discussed that IE is violating the “No-Write-Up” policy of the integrity level (IL) mechanism in Windows. While the end effect looks like it, the inner workings of how this is accomplished is more complicated and the behavior is not restricted to IE.

Let’s start with some preliminary background information:

  • Certificates are validated through a process of building a chain up to a trust anchor, the underlying of which is constructing a graph of nodes (certificates) and edges (issuance relationships) and then the graph is traversed to find all possible complete chains (in most cases just one). The smaller the graph is, the quicker it is to find a complete chain. Once the chain is complete, the certificate at the root of the chain is checked for trust. If the chain ends in a certificate present in the list of trusted root certificates and all other verifications pass, the certificate validation is successful.
  • Microsoft has a specific program called “Microsoft Root Certificate Program”, which is how certificate authorities (CAs) submit their root certificates for inclusion in Windows. The end result of this program is a *fixed* list of root certificates that Windows considers trusted. The entire list is available on TechNet and is updated whenever there are any changes. This list (or the equivalent of it at the time) was present in full in the root certificate store in Windows XP and earlier, but starting with Vista, this default list in the root certificate store is much smaller in order to increase performance while validating certificates. If a chain ends up in root certificate which is part of the Root Program but is not present in the list of trusted roots currently on the machine, Windows downloads the appropriate root certificate directly from Windows Update. The full process for all versions of the OS is described in a KB article. I’m not going to rehash the explanation of how it works, but the key point is that only those certificates accepted through the root program will be downloaded from Windows Update.

The IE low integrity processes are not instructing the broker to do anything, it all happens under the hood in the crypto APIs. Now, here is why the IE behavior is observed. You go to a web site, which certificate is issued by a CA not yet in your trusted root list. Because IE uses the standard cryptography API that Windows provides, when certificate validation is performed, Windows itself (not IE, nor its broker process) goes and fetches the root certificate from Windows Update *if* that certificate is part of the Root Program. The same behavior will be seen for any program that is using the same API to do certificate validation. Chrome as far as I know uses the Windows crypto APIs to do certificate validation and relies on the trusted roots list from Windows, so if you browse with Chrome, you will see the exact same thing happen (though I haven’t verified it personally).

Some people have asked me how they can prevent Windows from going to Windows Update in such cases. This can be achieved by disabling automatic root update through policy as described on TechNet. It should be noted that one should exercise caution in doing so, because disabling root update means that Windows will no longer manage certificate trust for you. You will have to manage the set of trusted root certificates on your own. To that end, import the full list of CAs part of the Root Program such that those are available in the list of trusted roots. Microsoft provides a small program – rootsupd.exe, as part of KB931125 which accomplishes this task. With this approach, you have control over trust management, but you need to keep the list updated whenever the set of roots in the root program changes. Microsoft has a wiki page which includes the information about new certificates that are part of an update. This page has RSS feed available which you can subscribe to so that you are notified of new updates, which makes keeping track of the updates an easy job.

I hope this helps explain how this all works and clarify that there is no real violation of the No-Write-Up policy, even though it might seem like it from high level.