CTLPop: Populating the Windows AuthRoot Certificate Store
In my previous post, I introduced improvements to
certinject, which allow us to apply a name constraint to all certificates in a Windows certificate store, without needing Administrator privileges. Alas, there is a major issue with using
certinject as presented in that post. The issue is that most of the built-in root CA’s in Windows aren’t part of any cert store!
Yep. Allow me to explain. The root CA list in Windows is pretty large (420 root CA’s at the moment, if my count is correct), and can also be updated on the fly via Windows Update. However, due to what Microsoft claims are performance concerns, only 24 of those root CA’s are actually populated in the cert store on a fresh Windows installation. The full list lives in a file called
AuthRoot.stl, which ships with Windows, and can also be updated via Windows Update. This file is a CTL (certificate trust list), meaning it only stores the hashes of the certificates (and a bit of other metadata), not the certificate preimages. (Why does a “CTL” have the file extension
.stl rather than
.ctl? Don’t ask. Just accept that Microsoft hates you. It’ll be easier that way.) When Windows tries to verify a certificate that chains back to a certificate in
AuthRoot.stl but isn’t in the Windows certificate store, it automatically fetches the certificate preimage from Windows Update, and inserts it into the certificate store (typically in the
AuthRoot logical store) prior to proceeding with the verification. This is all transparent to the user under typical circumstances.
Personally I am highly dubious that this is a meaningful performance optimization, especially since this system was created (AFAICT) around 2 decades ago, so even if it helped performance when it was introduced, I doubt that this performance gain is applicable on modern hardware (especially since today, network latency is a much bigger contributor to perceived performance than any kind of local CPU or IO performance, and this system entails extra network latency when verifying certificates with a previously-unseen root CA).
So What’s the Problem?
Well, unfortunately, if a root CA is being downloaded on-the-fly during certificate verification, that prevents
certinject from applying a name constraint to it before it gets used. This is unfortunate, since it means that most of the root CA’s in Windows cannot be reliably constrained via
What Can We Do?
It’s entirely feasible to download the full list of certificate preimages that
AuthRoot.stl refers to. There’s even a mostly-undocumented 
certutil command for this. But what do we want to do with it? Two ideas occurred to me:
- We could download the full set of certs in SST (serialized store) format (which also includes all the metadata, i.e. Properties besides the cert preimage), and ask
certutilto import it to the
AuthRootlogical store. Unfortunately, this means we’d need to run as Administrator, which is not really ideal. Also, how do we know for sure that
AuthRootis the right logical store to import them? Seems suboptimal.
- We could download the full set of certs to individual files, and use
certinjectto individually inject them to the
AuthRootstore, with Properties manually parsed from the
AuthRoot.stlfile. While this does avoid running with Administrator privileges by virtue of using
certinject, it means we’d have to carefully parse the Properties from
AuthRoot.stl, and make sure that
certinjectis applying them correctly. Seems like a lot of attack surface. Also, we still don’t know for sure that they all belong in the
AuthRootlogical store, and it still requires write privileges to the
AuthRootstore’s registry key. So this is still not great.
Since neither of these jumped out at me as “obviously this is the right way to do it”, I came up with another idea.
Make Windows Do Our Job For Us!
If you were reading the first section of this post carefully, you might have noted that Windows itself will happily insert the certificates from
AuthRoot.stl into the certificate store under certain circumstances, specifically when it’s necessary for certificate verification. Hmm, this sounds like something we can abuse! What happens if we download the full set of certificates to individual files from Windows Update, and then just politely ask
certutil to verify all of them? Intuitively, this seems like the kind of thing that will cause the following Series of
- CryptoAPI tries to verify the certificate by chaining it to a root CA in the certificate store. This, naturally, fails.
- CryptoAPI checks whether the certificate chains to a root CA in
AuthRoot.stl. Yes, the certificate does claim to be issued by a root CA in
AuthRoot.stl. (In reality, that’s because the certificate is issued by itself, but CryptoAPI can’t know this until it sees the issuing certificate.)
- CryptoAPI helpfully fetches the root CA referenced by
AuthRoot.stlfrom Windows Update, and adds it to the certificate store. Yay, we’ve achieved our goal!
- CryptoAPI discovers that the certificate we’re trying to verify is now marked as trusted, and
certutiltells us that verification succeeded. That’s cool and such, but we don’t really care about this step.
And the beauty of this trick is that we don’t need any elevated permissions for the certificate store (all we did was ask Windows to verify some certificates, which is obviously an unprivileged operation; Windows messed with the certificate store for us), nor did we need to worry about the Property metadata (again, Windows does this for us; there’s nothing we can screw up there no matter how buggy our code is).
And indeed, based on testing, the above workflow works exactly as I was hoping it would! Running
certutil to verify a certificate in
AuthRoot.stl downloaded from Windows Update does indeed result in the certificate being immediately imported to the certificate store. How cool is that?
(Side note: it turns out I was absolutely right to be wary of assuming that the
AuthRoot logical store is the right place. In fact, the
AuthRoot.stl CTL also covers a small number of Microsoft-operated root CA’s, which go in the
Root logical store –
AuthRoot is only for built-in root CA’s not operated by Microsoft.)
CTLPop: the AuthRoot Certificate Trust List Populator
I’ve created a simple PowerShell script called CTLPop, which automates this procedure. Just create a temporary directory (e.g.
.\place-to-store-certs) to download certificates to, run
ctlpop.ps1 -sync_dir .\place-to-store-certs, wait a few minutes (Travis CI indicates that it takes 4 minutes and 26 seconds to run twice in a row on their VM), and voila: now all 420 of the built-in root CA’s are part of your certificate store, ready for you to apply name constraints via
So What’s Next?
The easiest way to use CTLPop and
certinject is to simply run CTLPop once as part of the ncdns NSIS installer, and then run
certinject to apply the name constraint globally (again, as part of the NSIS installer). This is probably what we’ll ship initially, since it’s very simple and mostly works fine. However, it’s not great in terms of sandboxing (the NSIS installer runs as Administrator), and it’s also not as robust as I’d like (because if Microsoft updates the
AuthRoot.stl list later, the new root CA’s won’t get the name constraint unless ncdns is reinstalled). The “right” way to do this is to have a daemon that continuously watches for
AuthRoot.stl updates, and runs CTLPop and
certinject whenever an update is observed. We could even add a dead-man’s switch to make ncdns automatically stop resolving
.bit domains if the
AuthRoot.stl-watching daemon encounters some kind of unexpected error. We’ll probably migrate to this approach in the future, since it’s much more friendly to sandboxing (CTLPop, which involves network access and parsing untrusted data via
certutil, can run completely unprivileged, and
certinject, which does not touch the network and doesn’t parse untrusted data, only needs read+write privileges to the
AuthRoot certificate stores), and also will handle new root CA’s gracefully.
Expect to see name constraints via CTLPop and
certinject coming soon to an ncdns for Windows installer near you!
After this post was written, but before publication, I discovered that
certutil actually has a built-in command that will do exactly the same thing as CTLPop:
certutil -v -f -verifyCTL AuthRootWU. So, we can scrap the custom PowerShell implementation I wrote. Everything else, e.g. integration with the ncdns NSIS installer, remains the same. Why publish this post anyway? Because research isn’t always as clean as people sometimes imagine it to be. Researchers often pursue suboptimal leads; I think it’s useful to document the research process authentically rather than perpetuate the myth that scientists always know what they’re going to find in advance.
 It’s not documented at the certutil manual, but is mentioned elsewhere on Microsoft’s website.