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A Look at the Current State of DNSSEC in the Wild

Russ White

The DNS system is, unfortunately, rife with holes like Swiss Cheese; man-in-the-middle attacks can easily negate the operation of TLS and website security. To resolve these problems, the IETF and the DNS community standardized a set of cryptographic extensions to cryptographically sign all DNS records. These signatures rely on public/private key pairs that are transitively signed (forming a signature chain) from individual subdomains through the Top Level Domain (TLD). Now that these standards are in place, how heavily is DNSSEC being used in the wild? How much safer are we from man-in-the-middle attacks against TLS and other transport encryption mechanisms?

TL;DR – this will take more than 3 minutes to read.

  • DNSSEC is enabled on most top level domains
  • However, DNSSEC is not widely used or deployed beyond these TLDs

Three researchers published an article in Winter ;login; describing their research into answering this question (membership and login required to read the original article). The result? While more than 90% of the TLDs in DNS are DNSEC enabled, DNSSEC is still not widely deployed or used. To make matter worse, where it is deployed, it isn't well deployed. The article mentions two specific problems that appear to plague DNSSEC implementations.

First, on the server side, a number of domains either deploy weak or expired keys. An easily compromised key is often worse than having no key at all; there is no way to tell the difference between a key that has or has not been compromised. A weak key that has been compromised does not just impact the domain in question, either. If the weakly protected domain has subdomains, or its key is used to validate other domains in any way, the entire chain of trust through the weak key is compromised. Beyond this, there is a threshold over which a system cannot pass without the entire system, itself, losing the trust of its users. If 30% of the keys returned in DNS are compromised, for instance, most users would probably stop trusting any DNSSEC signed information. While expired keys are more obvious than weak keys, relying on expired keys still works against user trust in the system.

Second, DNSSEC is complex. The net result of a complex protocol combined with low deployment and demand on the server side is poor implementations in client implementations. Many implementations, according to the research in this paper, simply ignore failures in the certification validation process. Some of the key findings of the paper are:

  • One-third of the DNSSEC enabled domains produce responses that cannot be validated
  • While TLD operators widely support DNSSEC, registrars who run authoritative servers rarely support DNSSEC; thus the chain of trust often fails at the first hop in the resolution process beyond the TLD
  • Only 12% of the resolvers that request DNSSEC records in the query process validate them

To discover the deployment of DNSSEC, the researchers built an authoritative DNS server and a web server to host a few files. They configured subdomains on the authoritative server; some subdomains were configured correctly, while others were configured incorrectly (a certificate was missing, expired, malformed, etc.). By examining DNS requests for the subdomains they configured, they could determine which DNS resolvers were using the included DNSSEC information, and which were not.

Based on their results, the authors of this paper make some specific recommendations, such as enabling DNSSEC on all resolvers, such as the recursive servers your company probably operates for internal and external use. Owners of domain names should also ask their registrars to support DNSSEC on their authoritative servers.

Ultimately, it is up to the community of operators and users to make DNSSEC a reality in the 'net.

By Russ White, Network Architect at LinkedIn
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Related topics: Cybersecurity, DNS Security
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