What is certificate pinning?
Certificate pinning is the process of associating a host with their expected X.509 certificate or public key. Once a certificate or public key is known or seen for a host, the certificate or public key is associated or ‘pinned’ to the host.
A host or service’s certificate or public key can be added to an application at development time, or it can be added upon first encountering the certificate or public key. The former – adding at development time – is preferred since preloading the certificate or public key out of band usually means the attacker cannot taint the pin. If the certificate or public key is added upon first encounter, this is known as key continuity. Key continuity can fail if the attacker has a privileged position during the first encounter.
Pinning leverages knowledge of the pre-existing relationship between the user and an organization or service to help make better security related decisions. Because the application already has information on the server or service, it does not need to rely on generalised mechanisms meant to solve the key distribution problem. That is, it does not need to turn to DNS for name/address mappings or trusted CAs for bindings and status. No key distribution problems when there is no key distribution!
Why should you always pin?
Mobile applications should utilise either certificate or public key pinning in order to ensure that communications are secure. This is usually implemented when the developer of the application needs to validate the remote host’s identity or when operating in a hostile environment. Since one or both of these are almost always true, it is recommended that the majority of applications implement pinning.
OWASP’s page on Certificate and Public Key Pinning reads:
“You should pin anytime you want to be relatively certain of the remote host’s identity or when operating in a hostile environment. Since one or both are almost always true, you should probably pin all the time.”
Where and what to pin?
Certificate pinning can be implemented in a great many different ways. The pinning strategy should be carefully designed as there are many trade-offs to consider:
- What to pin?
- Public key
- Where to pin?
- The server’s certificate (a.k.a. leaf certificate)
- The Certificate Authority’s certificate (a.k.a. root certificate)
- An intermediate certificate
- The whole certificate chain
These decisions will affect the security but also the longevity of the solution. For example, pinning connections against the whole certificate chain will be the more robust strategy, but if any of the certificates in the chain change (for legitimate reasons) then the application will be unable to establish connections without users updating to a newer/rectified version. As another example, if the application pins connections against the leaf certificate’s public key, connections will remain securely pinned even if the CA is compromised.
Where to pin?
- Guarantees with close to 100% certainty that this is your certificate
- even if Root CA was compromised
- If the certificate becomes invalid for some reason (either normal expiration or compromise) the app will be bricked until you can push an update out
- Allows self-signed certificates – which can be a good thing from an ease of maintenance perspective
- By pinning against the root certificate you are trusting the root certificate authority as well as any intermediaries they trust not to mis-issue certificates
- If CA gets compromised it’s game over
- Very important to maintain strong certificate validation
- Pinning is not an excuse for bad certificate validation!
- By pinning against an intermediate certificate you are trusting that the intermediate certificate authority to not mis-issue a certificate for your server(s)
- As long as you stick to the same certificate provider then any changes to your leaf certificates will work without having to update your app
What to pin?
- Normally the certificate is easiest to pin
- At runtime, you retrieve the website or server’s certificate
- You compare the retrieved certificate with the certificate embedded within the application
- If the site/service rotates its certificate on a regular basis, then your application would need to be updated regularly
- More flexible
- A little trickier due to the extra steps necessary to extract the public key from a certificate
- Its harder to work with keys since you must extract the key from the certificate – can be somewhat of a pain in Cocoa/CocoaTouch and OpenSSL.
- As with a certificate, the program checks the extracted public key with its embedded copy of the public key
- Allows you to anonymize a certificate or public key
- this might be important if you application is concerned about leaking information during decompilation and reverse engineering
- A digested certificate fingerprint is often available as a native API for many libraries, so its convenient to use
- An organization might want to supply a reserve identity in case the primary identity is compromised
As these examples show, there are different implications that should be considered when implementing certificate pinning.
How should you pin?
From a technical perspective, it is not recommended that the pinned certificates are loaded from the filesystem as it unnecessarily extends the attack surface. It is recommended that the certificate, its public key or a secure hash of it are embedded into the application, paired with strong obfuscation and tamper detection mechanisms. Note that TLS certificate pinning without effective jailbreak/root detection and other advanced binary/runtime protections is a moot point: when the application runs on a jailbroken/rooted device, root will be able to instrument the application and bypass the pinning controls. The stronger the controls of your application, the more time and skill will be required from the adversary.
One of the most common ways of implementing certificate pinning for an iOS application, is to implement the didReceiveAuthenticationChallenge method in the NSURLConnectionDelegate. The custom certificate checks can be performed within the didReceiveAuthenticationChallenge method. Note that certificate validation should still be performed throughout the chain, which can be achieved by invoking SecTrustEvaluate in the delegate, before the custom certificate checks.
Further ways of implementing certificate pinning – namely using the AFNetworking and AlamoFire frameworks – are covered in .
In Android, the most common ways of implementing certificate pinning are usually:
- by creating a new class that extends X509TrustManager and implementing the bespoke certificate checks in the checkServerTrusted method; or
- by creating an empty KeyStore, adding the relevant certificates to it, and then:
- initialising a TrustManagerFactory with this KeyStore;
- initialising the SSLContext with this TrustManagerFactory.
A multitude of frameworks exist in Android, which allow developers to implement certificate pinning. Some of the most common ones are covered in . This includes Android N’s (and above) Network Security Configuration. Network Security Configuration.
Through a simple entry in the AndroidManifest.xml file the developer specifies an XML configuration file that defines the pins required. In fact, this solution works much better than previous solutions for pinning WebViews’ connections – with no additional effort on the developer’s part. It is also easy to support self-signed certificates or certificate authorities that are not trusted system root certificates.
However, both in iOS and Android platforms, there is a multitude of ways certificate pinning can be hardened. For example, using OpenSSL as a static library compiled with the app and using it for all connections would significantly increase the complexity for an attacker trying to instrument the application and bypass the pinning controls.
Some useful resources
- OWASP – Certificate and Public Key Pinning: https://www.owasp.org/index.php/Certificate_and_Public_Key_Pinning
- How to make your iOS apps more secure with SSL pinning: https://infinum.co/the-capsized-eight/how-to-make-your-ios-apps-more-secure-with-ssl-pinning
- Android Security – SSL Pinning: https://medium.com/@appmattus/android-security-ssl-pinning-1db8acb6621e
- Android – Network Security Configuration: https://developer.android.com/training/articles/security-config.html
- Android – JustTrustMe: https://github.com/Fuzion24/JustTrustMe
- iOS – SSL Kill Switch 2: https://github.com/nabla-c0d3/ssl-kill-switch2