U.S. Gov't Proposes Digital Signing of DNS Root Zone File

The U.S. government is soliciting input on a way to make the Internet's addressing system less susceptible to tampering by hackers.

Under the idea, records in the DNS (Domain Name System) root zone would be cryptographically signed using DNSSEC (Domain Name and Addressing System Security Extensions), a set of protocols that allows DNS records to carry a digital signature.

The U.S. Department of Commerce is asking for comments through Nov. 24 on how DNSSEC could best be deployed.

The root zone is the master list of where computers can go to look up an address in a particular domain such as ".com." The DNS translates Web site names, such as www.idg.com into a numerical IP (Internet Protocol) address, which is used by computers to find a Web site.

But several security problems within the DNS make it possible for hackers to supply a different IP address for a Web site. It means a user thinks she is viewing "www.idg.com" but actually is on a phishing site.

The most serious of these DNS vulnerabilities was revealed in July by security researcher Dan Kaminsky. Nearly all DNS software is vulnerable to the attack. Major vendors have deployed temporary patches but are working on a more permanent fix.

Security experts for years have advocated the adoption of DNSSEC, but implementation has been patchy. The U.S. government has said it will use DNSSEC for its ".gov" domain. Other ccTLDs (country-code Top-Level Domains) operators in Sweden (.se), Brazil (.br), Puerto Rico (.pr) and Bulgaria (.bg), are also using DNSSEC. The operator of the ".org" TLD has also committed to the system, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

But to get the full benefits of DNSSEC requires domain name registrars, domain name registries, ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and others to upgrade their software. Users' systems would also have to be configured to verify digital signatures.

"DNSSEC signed root zone would represent one of most significant changes to the DNS infrastructure since it was created," according to a notice issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce in the Federal Register, a daily digest of U.S. government notices.

Implementing DNSSEC would also introduce new steps in how changes to the root zone are published. As it stands now, TLD operators send changes to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, which is part of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN then sends the changes to the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. After approval, VeriSign -- a commercial company -- modifies the root file and sends it to the operators of the 13 root servers around the world.

The heavy involvement of the U.S. government, as well as the interests of VeriSign, in how the Internet's addressing system is administered has drawn criticism that the process is too U.S.-centric.

And there appears to be a battle brewing over which entity will manage the cryptographic keys required to sign the root zone file.

ICANN has submitted a proposal advocating it should hold the keys. ICANN said it is a nonprofit, transparent organization that is "not subject to market-based profit and loss considerations."

VeriSign countered in its proposal that it should be able to hold one kind of key necessary for the signing process, and the other kind should be split amongst other entities.

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