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NEMS SSL and Self-Signed Certificates

My browser warns, "Your connection is not secure". Why?

NEMS Linux uses SSL (aka https) connections to secure your connection and the data you transmit and receive to and from your NEMS server.

This is accomplished using what is called a self-signed certificate. By nature, self-signed certificates are considered “untrusted” by your browser because, simply put, anyone can make them. It does not mean your connection is not encrypted or secure, but rather it means your browser cannot determine who created the certificate, and therefore cannot verify your security.

If you visit a web site, say and received a warning that your connection is not secure, you should immediately stop what you're doing and not proceed. However, in the case of NEMS Linux, which is a local server on your network (not a “dot com” somewhere out on the web), you can safely trust the self-signed certificates and add an exception to your browser.

Where do the NEMS Self-Signed Certificates come from?

When you first deploy NEMS, a “default” certificate is included to help you get up and running. However, since this certificate is publicly available in the NEMS source code and img download, it is only used for your initial connection.

It can be a bit of a pain for novice users to setup SSL certificates, so like many other things with NEMS, I set out to make it easier.

When running nems-init, your unique SSL certificate is generated, added to your NEMS configuration and from then on all services will use your newly-created self-signed certificate.

What type of certificate is created?

NEMS generates self-signed certificates using ssl-cert. These self-signed certificates are called snakeoil because they do not use a certificate authority to authenticate validity. This means they provide a secure, encrypted connection between your client and NEMS server. However, they only provide trust to you and those who trust you (as you must accept the certificate / create an exception). This type of certificate is free and does not require you have your NEMS server publicly visible to the Internet.

Now that I have self-signed certs, how do I connect to NEMS?

Your browser will warn you that the site is untrusted the first time you connect. It will also provide an “Advanced” option where you can “Add Exception”.

I added a permanent exception, then reinstalled, re-initialized or upgraded NEMS, and now I can't connect.

You need to remove the old certificates from your browser, restart the browser, and try again.

Why not use Let's Encrypt?

Let's Encrypt (and other certificate authorities) require the server be web-accessible so they can respond to challenges that prove the identity of the server. In order to utilize a service such as Let's Encrypt, your NEMS Linux server would have to be hosted on an FQDN and be web-accessible. I recommend against this since it's an attack vector that is completely unnecessary. The only advantage a CA gives you is trust, but you already trust your NEMS server as you are accessing it on a local IP.

It's still not working.

Date and Time

Check (and fix) the date and time on both your NEMS server and your computer. If either are incorrect, your system will be unable to connect.

NEMS has NTP installed, so as long as you set your locale correctly during nems-init, the time and date should be correct. However, if your date is far inaccurate, NTP will reject the update. Therefore you must ensure your date and time are correct for NTP to work. See this helpful tool I have created to help you set the date and time quickly and accurately.

Most single board computers also require that you have an optional RTC battery installed as well. This maintains the date and time in event of power loss.

Security Software

Modern security software may by default block the use of self-signed certificates. This is a good security feature due to the inability to confirm trust of self-signed SSL connections that you do not have control over. You know you can trust your own NEMS server, but how do you know you can trust some obscure web site using a self-signed certificate? You can't.

I recommend against disabling this protection, as it is a good feature of anti-malware software. Instead, setup an exception for nems.local. Another idea is to setup an exception for your LAN, or create your LAN as a trusted zone.

self-signed-certs.txt · Last modified: 2018/11/04 10:06 by Robbie Ferguson