Using TPM Based Client Certificates on Firefox and Apache

One of the useful features of Apache (or indeed any competent web server) is the ability to use client side certificates. All this means is that a certificate from each end of the TLS transaction is verified: the browser verifies the website certificate, but the website requires the client also to present one and verifies it. Using client certificates, when linked to your own client certificate CA gives web transactions the strength of two factor authentication if you do it on the login page. I use this feature quite a lot for all the admin features my own website does. With apache it’s really simple to turn on with the


Directive which allows you to specify the CA for the accepted certificates. In my own setup I have my own self signed certificate as CA and then all the authority certificates use it as the issuer. You can turn Client Certificate verification on per location basis simply by doing

<Location /some/web/location>
SSLVerifyClient require

And Apache will take care of requesting the client certificate and verifying it against the CA. The only caveat here is that TLSv1.3 currently fails to work for this, so you have to disable it with

SSLProtocol -TLSv1.3

Client Certificates in Firefox

Firefox is somewhat hard to handle for SSL because it includes its own hand written mozilla secure sockets code, which has a toolkit quite unlike any other ssl toolkit1. In order to import a client certificate and key into firefox, you need to create a pkcs12 file containing them and import that into the “Your Certificates” box which is under Preferences > Privacy & Security > View Certificates

Obviously, simply supplying a key file to firefox presents security issues because you’d like to prevent a clever hacker from gaining access to it and thus running off with your client certificate. Firefox achieves a modicum of security by doing all key operations over the PKCS#11 API via a software token, which should mean that even malicious javascript cannot gain access to your key but merely the signing API

However, assuming you don’t quite trust this software separation, you need to store your client signing key in a secure vault like a TPM to make sure no web hacker can gain access to it. Various crypto system connectors, like the OpenSSL TPM2 and TPM2 engine, already exist but because Firefox uses its own crytographic code it can’t take advantage of them. In fact, the only external object the Firefox crypto code can use is a PKCS#11 module.

Aside about TPM2 and PKCS#11

The design of PKCS#11 is that it is a loadable library which can find and enumerate keys and certificates in some type of hardware device like a USB Key or a PCI attached HSM. However, since the connector is simply a library, nothing requires it connect to something physical and the OpenDNSSEC project actually produces a purely software based cryptographic token. In theory, then, it should be easy

The problems come with the PKCS#11 expectation of key residency: The library allows the consuming program to enumerate a list of slots each of which may, or may not, be occupied by a single token. Each token may contain one or more keys and certificates. Now the TPM does have a concept of a key resident in NV memory, which is directly analagous to the PKCS#11 concept of a token based key. The problems start with the TPM2 PC Client Profile which recommends this NV area be about 512 bytes, which is big enough for all of one key and thus not very scalable. In fact, the imagined use case of the TPM is with volatile keys which are demand loaded.

Demand loaded keys map very nicely to the OpenSSL idea of a key file, which is why OpenSSL TPM engines are very easy to understand and use, but they don’t map at all into the concept of token resident keys. The closest interface PKCS#11 has for handling key files is the provisioning calls, but even there they’re designed for placing keys inside tokens and, once provisioned, the keys are expected to be non-volatile. Worse still, very few PKCS#11 module consumers actually do provisioning, they mostly leave it up to a separate binary they expect the token producer to supply.

Even if the demand loading problem could be solved, the PKCS#11 API requires quite a bit of additional information about keys, like ids, serial numbers and labels that aren’t present in the standard OpenSSL key files and have to be supplied somehow.

Solving the Key File to PKCS#11 Mismatch

The solution seems reasonably simple: build a standard PKCS#11 library that is driven by a known configuration file. This configuration file can map keys to slots, as required by PKCS#11, and also supply all the missing information. the C_Login() operation is expected to supply a passphrase (or PIN in PKCS#11 speak) so that would be the point at which the private key could be loaded.

One of the interesting features of the above is that, while it could be implemented for the TPM engine only, it can also be implemented as a generic OpenSSL key exporter to PKCS#11 that happens also to take engine keys. That would mean it would work for non-engine keys as well as any engine that exists for OpenSSL … a nice little win.

Building an OpenSSL PKCS#11 Key Exporter

A Token can be built from a very simple ini like configuration file, with the global section setting global properties, like manufacurer id and library description and each individual section being used to instantiate a slot containing one key. We can make the slot name, the id and the label the same if not overridden and use key file directives to load the public and private keys. The serial number seems best constructed from a hash of the public key parameters (again, if not overridden). In order to support engine keys, the token library needs to know which engine to invoke, so I added an engine keyword to tell it.

With that, the mechanics of making the token library work with any OpenSSL key are set, the only thing is to plumb in the PKCS#11 glue API. At this point, I should add that the goal is simply to get keys and tokens working, not to replicate a full featured PKCS#11 API, so you shouldn’t use this as something to test against for a reference implementation (the softhsm2 token is much better for that). However, it should be functional enough to use for storing keys in Firefox (as well as other things, see below).

The current reasonably full featured source code is here, with a reference build using the OpenSUSE Build Service here. I should add that some of the build failures are due to problems with p11-kit and others due to the way Debian gets the wrong engine path for libp11.

At Last: Getting TPM Keys working with Firefox

A final problem with Firefox is that there seems to be no way to import a certificate file for which the private key is located on a token. The only way Firefox seems to support this is if the token contains both the private key and the certificate. At least this is my own project, so some coding later, the token now supports certificates as well.

The next problem is more mundane: generating the certificate and key. Obviously, the safest key is one which has never left the TPM, which means the certificate request needs to be built from it. I chose a CSR type that also includes my name and my machine name for later easy discrimination (and revocation if I ever lose my laptop). This is the sequence of commands for my machine called jarvis.

create_tpm2_key -a key.tpm
openssl req -subj "/CN=James Bottomley/UID=jarivs/" -new -engine tpm2 -keyform engine -key key.tpm -nodes -out jarvis.csr
openssl x509 -in jarvis.csr -req -CA my-ca.crt -engine tpm2 -CAkeyform engine -CAkey my-ca.key -days 3650 -out jarvis.crt

As you can see from the above, the key is first created by the TPM, then that key is used to create a certificate request where the common name is my name and the UID is the machine name (this is just my convention, feel free to use your own) and then finally it’s signed by my own CA, which you’ll notice is also based on a TPM key. Once I have this, I’m free to create an ini file to export it as a token to Firefox

manufacturer id = Firefox Client Cert
library description = Cert for hansen partnership
certificate = /home/jejb/jarvis.crt
private key = /home/jejb/key.tpm
engine = tpm2

All I now need to do is load the PKCS#11 shared object library into Firefox using Settings > Privacy & Security > Security Devices > Load and I have a TPM based client certificate ready for use.

Additional Uses

It turns out once you have a generic PKCS#11 exporter for engine keys, there’s no end of uses for them. One of the most convenient has been using TPM2 keys with gnutls. Although gnutls was quick to adopt TPM 1.2 based keys, it’s been much slower with TPM2 but because gnutls already has a PKCS#11 interface using the p11 kit URI format, you can easily build a config file of all the TPM2 keys you want it to use and simply use them by URI in gnutls.

Unfortunately, this has also lead to some problems, the biggest one being Firefox: Firefox assumes, once you load a PKCS#11 module library, that you want it to use every single key it can find, which is fine until it pops up 10 dialogue boxes each time you start it, one for each key password, particularly if there’s only one key you actually care about it using. This problem doesn’t seem solvable in the Firefox token interface, so the eventual way I did it was to add the ability to specify the config file in the environment (variable OPENSSL_PKCS11_CONF) and modify my xfce Firefox action to set this in the environment pointing at a special configuration file with only Firefox’s key in it.

Conclusions and Future Work

Hopefully I’ve demonstrated this simple PKCS#11 converter can be useful both to keeping Firefox keys safe as well as uses in other things like gnutls. Unfortunately, it turns out that the world wide web is turning against PKCS#11 tokens as having usability problems and is moving on to something called FIDO2 tokens which have the web browser talking directly to the USB token. In my next technical post I hope to explain how you can use the Linux Kernel USB gadget system to connect a TPM up easily as a FIDO2 token so you can use the new passwordless webauthn protocol seamlessly.

  1. To be completely fair to Mozilla here, every ssl toolkit is completely unlike every other ssl toolkit so they are decidedly not unique in this regard. It must be something to do with security by obscurity.
  2. In fact, the TPM engine was originally created by IBM Research on Sourceforge, but the code has bitrotted somewhat, particularly with OpenSSL and its ever changing API, so SUSE has forked it and updated it for modern user

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