An HTTPS client needs to do a whole lot of checks to make sure that the remote host is fine to communicate with to maintain the proper high security levels.
In this blog post, I will explain why and how the entire HTTPS ecosystem relies on the browsers to be good and strict and thanks to that, the rest of the HTTPS clients can get away with being much more lenient. And in fact that is good, because the browsers don't help the rest of the ecosystem very much to do good verification at that same level.
Let me me illustrate with some examples.
The server's certificate must have been signed by a trusted CA (Certificate Authority). A client then needs the certificates from all the CAs that are trusted. Who's a trusted CA and how would a client get their certs to use for verification?
You can say that you trust the same set of CAs that your operating system vendor trusts (which I've always thought is a bit of a stretch but hey, I can very well understand the convenience in this). If you want to do this as an HTTPS client you need to use native APIs in Windows or macOS, or you need to figure out where the cert bundle is stored if you're using Linux.
If you're not using the native libraries on windows and macOS or if you can't find the bundle in your Linux distribution, or you're in one of a large amount of other setups where you can't use someone else's bundle, then you need to gather this list by yourself.
How on earth would you gather a list of hundreds of CA certs that are used for the popular web sites on the net of today? Stand on someone else's shoulders and use what they've done? Yeps, and conveniently enough Mozilla has such a bundle that is licensed to allow others to use it...
Mozilla doesn't offer the set of CA certs in a format that anyone else can use really, which is the primary reason why we offer Mozilla's cert bundle converted to PEM format on the curl web site. The other parties that collect CA certs at scale (Microsoft for Windows, Apple for macOS, etc) do even less.
Before you ask, Google doesn't maintain their own list for Chrome. They piggyback the CA store provided on the operating system it runs on. (Update: Google maintains its own list for Android/Chrome OS.)
But the browsers, including Firefox, Chrome, Edge and Safari all add additional constraints beyond that CA cert store, on what server certificates they consider to be fine and okay. They blacklist specific fingerprints, they set a last allowed date for certain CA providers to offer certificates for servers and more.
These additional constraints, or additional rules if you want, are never exported nor exposed to the world in ways that are easy for anyone to mimic (in other ways than that everyone of course can implement the same code logic in their ends). They're done in code and they're really hard for anyone not a browser to implement and keep up with.
This makes every non-browser HTTPS client susceptible to okaying certificates that have already been deemed not OK by security experts at the browser vendors. And in comparison, not many HTTPS clients can compare or stack up the amount of client-side TLS and security expertise that the browser developers can.
HTTP Strict Transfer Security is a way for sites to tell clients that they are to be accessed over HTTPS only for a specified time into the future, and plain HTTP should then not be used for the duration of this rule. This setup removes the Man-In-The-Middle (MITM) risk on subsequent accesses for sites that may still get linked to via HTTP:// URLs or by users entering the web site names directly into the address bars and so on.
The browsers have a "HSTS preload list" which is a list of sites that people have submitted and they are HSTS sites that basically never time out and always will be accessed over HTTPS only. Forever. No risk for MITM even in the first access to these sites.
There are no such HSTS preload lists being provided for non-browser HTTPS clients so there's no easy way for non-browsers to avoid the first access MITM even for these class of forever-on-HTTPS sites.
Update: The Chromium HSTS preload list is available in a JSON format.
I'm sure you've heard about the deprecation of SHA-1 as a certificate hashing algorithm and how the browsers won't accept server certificates using this starting at some cut off date.
I'm not aware of any non-browser HTTPS client that makes this check. For services, API providers and others don't serve "normal browsers" they can all continue to play SHA-1 certificates well into 2017 without tears or pain. Another ecosystem detail we rely on the browsers to fix for us since most of these providers want to work with browsers as well...
This isn't really something that is magic or would be terribly hard for non-browsers to do, its just that it will make some users suddenly get errors for their otherwise working setups and that takes a firm attitude from the software provider that is hard to maintain. And you'd have to introduce your own cut-off date that you'd have to fight with your users about! 😉
TLS is hard to get right
TLS and HTTPS are full of tricky areas and dusty corners that are hard to get right. The more we can share tricks and rules the better it is for everyone.
I think the browser vendors could do much better to help the rest of the ecosystem. By making their meta data available to us in sensible formats mostly. For the good of the Internet.
Yes I work for Mozilla which makes Firefox. A vendor and a browser that I write about above. I've been communicating internally about some of these issues already, but I'm otherwise not involved in those parts of Firefox.