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DNSSEC Secures Another Domain

The .edu domain will adopt DNSSEC next March amid more concern over Domain Name System security
Education and academic community domain .edu is about to become the next top-level domain adopt the Domain Name Systems (DNS) security protocol.

Domains ending in .edu will be able to digitally sign their domains with DNSSEC by the end of next March. DNSSEC is basically an extra layer of authentication that helps protect the DNS translation process from being compromised by attackers.

DNSSEC has been gaining momentum during the past year in the wake of researcher Dan Kaminsky's finding of a major DNS cache poisoning flaw. The .org domain is signed, federal agencies must adopt DNSSEC by December for their .gov domains, and new FISMA regulations call for agencies to sign their intranet zones with DNSSEC by the middle of next year. And VeriSign plans to sign .net with DNSSEC by the end of 2010, and .com in early 2011.

While .edu's move to DNSSEC will allow institutions to digitally sign their domain names, security experts and officials say just when or if the registrants themselves will go DNSSEC is unclear. "The first step is to make the necessary changes in the zone so that individual registrants can take advantage of it," says Steve Worona, director of policy and networking programs for EDUCAUSE, which operates the .edu domain. "And it's [their] decision of when and whether they will sign their [domain]."

The .edu domain is one of the smallest, with about 6,000 registrants, but its adoption of DNSSEC could serve as a case study for the larger domains, Worona says. "This is quite a technologically savvy community [as well]. People understand what DNSSEC is and what its value would be," he says.

EDUCAUSE and VeriSign, which is the .edu registry, are launching a DNSSEC testbed this month in order to gradually roll out the protocol in the domain.

"It's great to see .edu signing their zone -- educational institutions are aggregations of enormous numbers of nodes, all of which may have legitimate reasons to need to identify one another across university boundaries," says Kaminsky, director of penetration testing for IOActive. "DNSSEC will help with this."

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in a report (PDF) report last month declared DNS one of the most at-risk pieces of the U.S. IT infrastructure. "And it points directly at DNSSEC as a way to mitigate risk" of DNS attack, notes Cricket Liu, vice president of architecture for Infoblox.

DHS also flagged identity management as a key component to shoring up Internet security. "I've been saying for a while: Fixing DNS is how we fix the Internet's inability to scalably authenticate," Kaminsky says. "So it's really interesting to see DHS call out weaknesses in present authentication models right after calling for DNSSEC -- the latter is broken precisely because of the former."

But even with .edu, .gov, and .org onboard with DNSSEC, one big missing link remains: signing the root with DNSSEC. "It's great to have parent zones signed," Liu says. "But unless you protect the entire transaction from root to authoritative name server to give you the ultimate answer, DNSSEC is not that helpful."

And DNS administrators won't consider going DNSSEC until the root is signed, Kaminsky says. "None of this work is operationally useful until the day the root is signed," he says. "Second, DNSSEC needs to be completely and utterly automatic. Cookbooks are not the answer."

Gopala Tumuluri, vice president of marketing at Nominum, says there's been more progress with DNSSEC adoption in the past year than there has been in the protocol's nearly 15 years of existence, and agreement on the root is making some inroads. "There have been some political battles at the root...with ICANN and other top-level domain owners over who should sign and own the root. More recently, there's been some convergence on shared responsibility there," Tumuluri says.

Earlier this month ICANN announced it will work with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA_, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and VeriSign to ensure the Internet's root zone is digitally signed with DNSSEC this year.

Meanwhile, signing domains is a big step, but there's still a long way to go for DNSSEC to trickle down to an actual organization's Website. "A lot of organizations don't have DNS experts sitting around, and a lot of operators don't understand it," Tumuluri says. "This is a big challenge. And DNSSEC adds a whole new dimension of complexity to DNS operations, which could cause problems. There will be slow movement to it because people don't want to take big leaps and screw things up."

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