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Sane time

"...because any sane person knows what day it is!" -- Raz


There are cases in Chrome where it is important to have an accurate time source. Although most modern operating systems now automatically synchronize computer clocks to some external time source, some computers may still have a skewed clock for various reasons: time syncing may not be configured correctly, the user may have manually set the clock erroneously, malware commonly changes the system time, etc. Thus, it is desirable for Chrome itself to keep track of time from an external source and its offset from the time on the local computer.  

The use of time in TLS (for certificate verification) has two consequences.  First, we cannot depend upon a client’s ability to make a TLS connection to establish the time!  And second, it’s important that the source of time be secure, because TLS security depends upon it. An attacker who can control the time on the user’s computer can, for example, cause Chrome to accept an expired certificate as valid.

Time Sources discusses a similar problem for Chrome OS devices.


We desire that the time be known to within a few minutes.  Assuming that the time on any Google server is accurate, and that we can communicate to Google machines securely, we call any time that we receive from a Google server over a secure channel "sane time" (because it's just accurate enough to be considered sane).  

In the case where the client’s clock is badly wrong, we won’t be able to establish a TLS connection.  Hence, we will use a purpose-built time server.

What about NTP?

NTP is a protocol built expressly for time synchronization.  But relying on it in Chrome has some disadvantages:

  • It requires maintaining NTP client code in Chrome, which is a higher burden than the solution outlined here, both in code size and developer time.

  • Chrome may be unable to send UDP, as suggested by metrics from QUIC.  Making time available to the widest range of clients suggests we should prefer HTTP.

  • There are attacks on NTP.

Another possibility is to rely on the local time if it's already running an NTP client.  This is also problematic, as it involves writing code to detect running NTP clients and verifying that it's sanely configured.

Representation and accuracy

In Chrome, there are two clocks: a wall clock (base::Time) and a non-decreasing clock (base::TimeTicks).  The wall clock is what changes when the local time is changed, so we cannot reliably use it to compare against the server time unless we can detect when it changes (currently not possible).  Furthermore, we have no way of detecting when it changes when Chrome isn't running!

The non-decreasing clock, which is usually a tick count since the computer has started, is unaffected when the local time is changed.  However, it becomes meaningless across restarts of Chrome (since the computer may be rebooted between restarts).  Furthermore, it may stop when the computer is put to sleep, so even though it is intended for measure durations, it gives inaccurate results if the computer was asleep for the measured time interval.

Chrome can detect when the computer goes to sleep and wakes, but only on some platforms.  So instead, we define an idea of “sanity”, meaning that the wall clock and non-decreasing clock have recorded approximately equal times since the last network time query.  The internal representation of time thus consists of a tuple of (network time, wall clock time, tick clock time), which is serialized to a pref and restored at startup.  Note that a restart that resets the tick clock will cause the deserialized representation to be rejected as insane.

Finally, we record an uncertainty (base::TimeDelta) that accounts for both the coarseness of the time representation, and the latency in fetching it.  But, to reiterate, we are aiming only for an approximation: availability is much more important than accuracy.

Time protocol

Since the Omaha protocol has the needed security properties, and since it works over HTTP, and since it already has a server fleet deployed, we’ll use it as the basis for a temporary time protocol.  Client requests will include a random nonce as a GET parameter, which is signed in the server’s response.  (This incidentally defeats caching.)  This is fairly heavyweight, of course, but since we are still experimenting we’d rather leverage existing code than design and support a lightweight protocol with a long lifetime. The responses look like this:


{"protocol_version": 1, "current_time_millis": 1457471762000}

To avoid excess queries, queries will be sent only when the time is insane or unavailable, but no more often than every (say) 60 minutes.   We’ll make this number configurable, to allow experimentation & to enable us to disable the feature if necessary.  Another possible refinement is platform-specific adjustments, e.g. to save network traffic on Android or to allow more frequent updates on Windows, which tends to have less accurate clocks.  On startup, if sane time is unavailable via deserialization, Chrome will wait for a random backoff period before issuing its first time query.  

This hopefully avoids most “thundering herd” scenarios, since time queries are issued only in response to local events.

For managed devices, we may need to supply a way to disable time queries.

Use of sane time in SSL certificate validation

One day, it would be nice to use secure time for all certificate validation decisions, but it will take a while to get there.

As a first step, we’ll use sane time to validate certificate rejections: if the rejection was due to the wall clock being wrong, Chrome displays an interstitial asking the user to correct it, and records SHOW_BAD_CLOCK to UMA.

Use of sane time in upgrades

Sane time is used in to detect when Chrome needs to be updated.

Code changes

Addition of the NetworkTimeTracker class was done in bug 146090.  The SSL “bad clock” interstitial was done in bug 414843.  The bug for the changes below is 589700.

Time is kept by the NetworkTimeTracker class.  The following changes will be needed to bring its implementation into line with this design:

  1. Change the source of time updates.  Once we’ve stood up the new time servers, we’ll add code to periodically query them.  The most natural way to do this is to change NetworkTimeTracker to manage time updates on its own, rather than than relying on external callers (currently just to provide time.  UpdateNetworkTime should become a private method.

  2. For managed devices, implement a policy to disable time queries.

  3. Add the notion of “sanity” to NetworkTimeTracker.  This means recording the value of the tick clock, as well as the value of the wall clock, so that they can be compared.  Most likely we’ll change received_network_time to simply return false when the clock is insane.  

  4. The amount of skew allowed between the wall clock and the tick clock can be generous (hours?), but we’ll still want to establish by some experimental means that most clients can run for a long time without becoming insane.

And in addition, to benefit from these changes:

  1. Change to call NetworkTimeTracker::GetNetworkTime to decide whether to display the “please fix your clock” interstitial.  If it is simple to extract the validity period of the rejected certificate, we’ll ensure that sane time falls within its validity period before showing the interstitial.  If that’s not easy to do, we’ll have to define a rule of thumb, like “only display the interstitial if the wall clock is more than 24 hours different from sane time.”