RFC-0134: Software updates time dependency

RFC-0134: Software updates time dependency
  • Software Delivery

Removes time synchronization as a dependency of software updates.

Gerrit change
Date submitted (year-month-day)2021-07-24
Date reviewed (year-month-day)2021-10-06


This RFC removes time synchronization as a dependency of software updates.


Fuchsia devices report a fixed "backstop" time until they synchronize time from a network or real time clock. The time reported is currently implemented as reporting the approximate time of the base image build, which could be a few months old.

Unlike other early-boot users of time, the system update checks don't wait for time synchronization. When time is not synchronized during an update check, the package resolver may indirectly use the backstop time as part of TLS certificate validation. This has the following issues:

  1. When the backstop time is older than the creation date of the certificate, the update fails with a CertNotValidYet error. Because the update and package servers may be accessed via different names, this failure can occur in multiple components. In this case, if time synchronization is broken, the device will be stuck and never update again.
  2. Expired certificates that were valid during the backstop time can be used to serve update responses and packages.

Removing time synchronization as a dependency of the software update process solves the first issues, and makes update more reliable.


This RFC proposes that software updates should not rely on accurate time being available.

Which means that it will:

  • Allow certificates to have a validity period that is in the future.

  • Always use backstop time to validate certificate, even if time has been synchronized.


A custom TLS certificates verifier needs to be implemented, and used in omaha-client and pkg-resolver.

During construction, the verifier will get the backstop time from ClockDetails of the UTC clock object, and keep it as a field of the struct.

The verifier will implement ServerCertVerifier trait using WebPKIVerifier with a time function that returns the backstop time, if WebPKIVerifier returns CertNotValidYet error, create another WebPKIVerifier using a time that's within the validity period of the certificate and call it again.


The custom verifier simply wraps WebPKIVerifier for the happy path, and will only call WebPKIVerifier twice if the first call returns CertNotValidYet error.



Backwards Compatibility

No changes to the API.

Security considerations

This design will accept these certificates as valid:

  • an expired TLS certificate that's newer than the backstop time
  • a TLS certificate that's in the future

While this is not ideal, the first case can already happen today so it's not a regression, and the second case has very little risk.

In addition, even if the device were tricked into installing a malicious update, we still have verified execution, so it won't boot and will revert back. We also have roll back protection, so a signed old build won't work either.

Keep in mind that an attacker wielding a compromised certificate and DNS control could trick the time system into accepting an arbitrary time, so even if we make update checks wait for time synchronization, it would not help with this situation.

Certificate revocation is out of scope of this RFC, but would be a good area of exploration in another one, although such a solution could require listing expired certificates as revoked indefinitely.

Privacy considerations

No impact on privacy.


Unit tests the custom certificates verifier extensively, make sure that it will only accept a certificate in the future if everything else is valid.

Integration test for omaha-client and pkg-resolver to verify that update works with very old time.



Drawbacks, alternatives, and unknowns

Alternative: Wait for Time Synchronization

In this model, we will not update until the time has been synchronized, while this gives us some security benefit, it's not much because time synchronization could be compromised as well, however this model makes update depends on time synchronization, which might be broken for various reasons, making updates less reliable.

Alternative: Wait for Time, but Update After Deadline

In this model, we'd wait some arbitrary amount of time for time to synchronize, and perform an update check after some period if time has not yet synchronized.

While this solves the primary drawback of the previous alternative, it is sensitive in other ways. The delay is arbitrary: a device caught in a boot loop with a lower period than this delay would also never update.

Additionally, we still rely on backstop time, and this likely implies the need to relax our certificate validation strictness.

Prior art and references

ChromeOS does not have this problem, because it does not have backstop time and there are no Google TLS certificates that were valid in 1970.