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RFC5280's section 4.2 states

Each extension in a certificate is designated as either critical or non-critical. A certificate-using system MUST reject the certificate if it encounters a critical extension it does not recognize or a critical extension that contains information that it cannot process. A non-critical extension MAY be ignored if it is not recognized, but MUST be processed if it is recognized.

but I can't find information (preferably a short list) on which extensions should(n't) be designated critical. I encountered the basicConstraints to be critical, both because it's basic and because a certificate marked as CA:FALSE should obviously not be able to sign child-certificates (though I think I read somewhere that pathlen for restricted CAs seems to be ignored occasionally) - but it's also one of the most basic parts of a certificate, which is probably why it's also often not designated critical. keyUsage sound like a good candidate for critical, but what about extendedKeyUsage and subjectAltName?

Is there a short overview stating which extensions should be a) critical b) non-critical c) doesn't matter?

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1 Answer 1

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In "pure X.509", it does not really matter if an extension is critical or not, because conforming implementations are supposed to honour the extensions that they recognize, be they marked critical or not. The "critical" flag is for extensions which are not standard: you make such an extension critical if it is important for security (implementations which do not understand the extension should reject the certificate), or non-critical otherwise (implementations which do not understand the extension can then safely ignore it).

There is a slight exception to this rule, with the CRL Distribution Points extension. It has two purposes: to document where CRL can be downloaded from, and to implement scope segmentation. This latter role is active only when the extension is critical. When the extension is critical, then a CRL can be deemed to cover the certificate (i.e. to be able to tell something about its revocation status) only if the CRL contains an Issuing Distribution Point extension, with a "distribution point" which matches one of those specified in the CRL Distribution Point extension in the certificate. When the extension is not critical, the extension serves only in its documentation role.

In practice, you will make extensions critical or not depending on whether they can be ignored without piercing too big a hole in the whole security, and also depending on whether making the extension critical will induce existing implementations to reject the certificate for lack of support. For instance, if you use a critical Name Constraints extension, then you risk unconditional rejection from OpenSSL (versions prior to 1.0, which is quite recent, don't support it); but if you make it non-critical, then the same OpenSSL will ignore it. The Name Constraints extension is a typical case of an extension which cannot be ignored safely, and thus should always be marked critical (but interoperability issues make its usage problematic).

RFC 5280 lists, for each certificate extension, whether a conforming CA should make the extension critical or not. These are requirements on the CA and not on validators; a system which validates a certificate must not reject it on the basis that it includes a critical Subject Key Identifier extension, even though RFC 5280 says (section

Conforming CAs MUST mark this extension as non-critical.

See the RFC for the details on every extension: these are guidelines for how your CA should behave. For instance, Key Usage is a "SHOULD be critical", Basic Constraints is a "MAY be critical", Name Constraints is a "MUST be critical", and so on... If you follow these rules, your security will be fine (but you may have to make some modifications for interoperability).

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