What is mTLS (mutual TLS)?

June 6, 2024
min read
Team ngrok

Mutual TLS (mTLS) is a security protocol that enhances the standard Transport Layer Security (TLS) by requiring both parties in communication to authenticate each other. To minimize the risk of attacks, a client (such as a web browser or application) and a server (such as a website or service) present certificates to validate each other's identity before opening the communication channel.

To understand Mutual TLS, it is essential to understand TLS. TLS is a cryptographic protocol designed to secure communication over computer networks. It ensures privacy and data integrity between applications, such as web browsers and servers, email clients and servers, or any other client-server communication.

Before TLS, the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol was used to secure communication over computer networks. Netscape developed SSL in the mid-1990s, which was the primary protocol for securing web traffic until it was replaced by TLS due to some vulnerability issues and security flaws. While TLS fixes the security issues with SSL, it is still inefficient because it only authenticates in one direction: the client only authenticates the server, but the server doesn't authenticate the client. 

mTLS extends TLS by requiring the client and server to authenticate each other with digital certificates. This mutual authentication establishes trust and confirms the identities of both parties in the communication. With this added security layer, mTLS significantly decreases the chances of unauthorized access and data breaches.

How does mTLS work?

As stated, mTLS requires the client and server to authenticate each other before establishing a secure communication channel. This mutual authentication mitigates the risk of unauthorized access and ensures that both parties can trust each other before exchanging sensitive information. Here's a step-by-step breakdown of how MTLS works:

  1. Handshake Initiation
    The client initiates the handshake by sending the server a "ClientHello" message, indicating its intention to establish a secure connection. The server also responds with a "ServerHello" message.
  2. Certificate Exchange
    The server shares its digital certificate with the client, containing its public key and necessary details. Likewise, the client provides its digital certificate to the server, enabling the server to verify the client's identity.
  3. Certificate Verification
    The client verifies the server's certificate to ensure it's valid and trusted. This process involves validating it against a trusted certificate authorities (CAs) list. The server verifies the client's certificate to authenticate the client's identity. This confirms the client's identity and prevents unauthorized access.
  4. Key Exchange
    Once both parties have successfully authenticated each other, they exchange cryptographic keys to encrypt and decrypt data during the session. This step ensures secure communication between the client and server.
  5. Encrypted Communication
    After the key exchange, all data transmitted between the client and server is encrypted using the shared secret key. This ensures confidentiality; even if someone intercepts the data, they can't decipher it without the key.

Why use mTLS over standard TLS?

mTLS offers stronger security than standard TLS by requiring the client and server to authenticate each other using digital certificates. This mutual authentication mitigates the risk of unauthorized access and impersonation, making it ideal in environments where the confidentiality and authenticity of the communication are paramount. Here are some reasons to use mTLS:

  1. Data Confidentiality: mTLS encrypts data transmitted between the client and server, ensuring confidentiality. This encryption prevents eavesdroppers from intercepting and reading sensitive information exchanged during the communication.
  2. Reduced Risk of Attacks: mTLS helps prevent attacks that exploit weaknesses in unauthenticated connections. These include "man-in-the-middle" attacks, in which a malicious actor intercepts communication or attempts unauthorized access by impersonating legitimate devices.
  3. Flexible Deployment: mTLS can be implemented in various environments, including web services, APIs, microservices architectures, and IoT devices. Its flexibility makes it suitable for multiple applications and use cases.
  4. Zero Trust Alignment: mTLS aligns well with the principles of zero trust security, where no device or user is inherently trusted. By requiring mutual authentication, mTLS ensures that only authorized devices and applications can communicate. 

Learn more about mTLS and ngrok

Mutual TLS (mTLS) is a robust security measure that offers enhanced protection and authentication in communication channels. By requiring the client and server to verify each other's identity through digital certificates, mTLS significantly reduces the risk of unauthorized access and data breaches.

However, it's important to note that while mTLS enhances security, it also introduces system design and operation complexity. Implementing and managing mTLS requires careful planning regarding certificate management, key distribution, and ongoing maintenance of trust stores. Despite these challenges, enhanced security and trustworthiness benefits make mTLS valuable.

Ready to learn more? Check out these resources:

  • This comprehensive blog post on authentication at the network edge covers various methods, including HTTP basic authentication.
  • For detailed instructions on setting up TLS, refer to the ngrok documentation on TLS. This guide offers step-by-step directions for configuring TLS to ensure secure communication.
  • Additionally, our guide on mTLS explains how to implement mTLS, adding an extra layer of security by requiring both client and server authentication.

As always, If you have questions, issues, or features to request, you can always find us on X, in the ngrok Slack community, or email us directly at support@ngrok.com!

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