Feds tighten security on .gov

Largest-ever deployment of DNS security doesn’t address root, .com servers

When you file your taxes online, you want to be sure that the Web site you visit -- www.irs.gov -- is operated by the Internal Revenue Service and not a scam artist. By the end of next year, you can be confident that every U.S. government Web page is being served up by the appropriate agency.

That’s because the feds have launched the largest-ever rollout of a new authentication mechanism for the Internet’s DNS. All federal agencies are deploying DNS Security Extensions (DNSSEC) on the .gov top-level domain, and some expect that once that rollout is complete, banks and other businesses might be encouraged to follow suit for their sites.

DNSSEC prevents hackers from hijacking Web traffic and redirecting it to bogus sites. The Internet standard prevents spoofing attacks by allowing Web sites to verify their domain names and corresponding IP addresses using digital signatures and public-key encryption.  

(See "Spammers, crammers, fraudsters and identity stealers: The FTC’s top 2008 cases".) 

With DNSSEC deployed, federal Web sites “are less prone to be hacked into, and it means they can offer their services with greater assurances to the public,’’ says Leslie Daigle, Chief Internet Technology Officer for the Internet Society. "DNSSEC means more confidence in government online services.’’

The U.S.’s government DNSSEC mandate is "significant,’’ says Olaf Kolkman, a DNSSEC expert and director of NLnet Labs, a nonprofit R&D foundation in the Netherlands. "First, the tool developers will jump in because there is the U.S. government as a market….Second, there is suddenly a significant infrastructure to validate against.’’

The White House DNSSEC mandate comes just weeks after the July disclosure of one of the most serious DNS bugs ever found. The Kaminsky bug -- named after security researcher Dan Kaminsky who discovered it -- allows for cache poisoning attacks, where a hacker redirects traffic from a legitimate Web site to a fake Web one without the user knowing. (See "How the feds are locking down their networks.")

White House officials said their DNSSEC mandate has been in the works since February 2003, when the Bush Administration released its National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace.  The cybersecurity strategy, which was prompted by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, included the goal of securing the DNS.

Under a separate, but related, cybersecurity program called the Trusted Internet Connection initiative, the U.S. government is reducing the number of external Internet connections it operates from more than 8,000 to less than 100.

The DNSSEC mandate "was issued as a consequence of agencies having completed the initial consolidation of external network connectivity [through the Trusted Internet Connection initiative],’’ said Karen Evans, administrator for the Office of E-Government and Information Technology at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in a statement. "The Kaminsky DNS bug was not a factor.’’

DNS hardware and software vendors that are scrambling to add DNSSEC capabilities to their products predict the one-two punch of the Kaminsky bug followed by the White House mandate will drive DNSSEC deployment across the Internet.

"The timing couldn’t be better right now, with Dan Kaminsky’s vulnerability and the huge spotlight that focused on DNS security,’’ says Mark Beckett, vice president of marketing for Secure64, a DNS vendor that began shipping an automated system for deploying DNSSEC in September. "Even though we have a patch out there for the Kaminsky bug…the only long-term solution to this problem is DNSSEC.’’

The OMB mandate is "significant, but it’s the tip of the iceberg,’’ says Rodney Joffe, senior vice president and senior technologist for NeuStar, which sells the UltraDNS managed services suite and operates several top-level domains (TLDs) including .us and .biz. "All the other TLDs are now scrambling to work on DNSSEC. It’s a sea change. There is no question that 2009 will be the year of DNSSEC.’’

White House mandates DNSSEC

The OMB issued a mandate in August that requires all federal agencies to support DNSSEC.  

The memo states that .gov must be cryptographically signed at the top level by January 2009, and that all subdomains under .gov, such as www.irs.gov, must be signed by December 2009.

While the memo focuses on the .gov domain, the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency says it intends to meet OMB's DNSSEC requirements on the .mil domain, too.

OMB is working with agencies to finalize their plans for deploying DNSSEC on their domains and subdomains, and these plans are expected to be finalized by mid-October.

"The federal government has been working with many organizations regarding DNSSEC and is preparing for deployment,’’ Evans says. "One of the resources available, the Secure Naming Infrastructure Pilot (SNIP), is a testbed available to all government agencies so they can test their DNSSEC operations prior to deployment.’’

To meet the mandate, federal agencies must upgrade their DNS servers to support the new protocol, buy network management tools to support DNSSEC, and provide training to their network management staff.

"The real impact is that you are changing the way the DNS is managed within the .gov domain,’’ says Scott Rose, a computer science with the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) Information Technology Laboratory. "The largest cost in DNSSEC deployment is setting up procedures and software for key management.’’

Agencies will pay for DNSSEC out of their existing IT infrastructure budgets, Evans says.

"People who want to enable their domain names, say those of their Web sites, to be validated with DNSSEC have to do some investing. They have to update their infrastructure, and they have to go through a learning curve,’’ says Kolkman, who called the OMB deadline of December 2009 “ambitious.’’

"We think it’s doable,’’ Rose says of the .gov DNSSEC deadline. "We think it sends a strong signal that the U.S. government is committed to DNSSEC and to improving Internet security within the .gov domain.’’

By rolling out DNSSEC on .gov, the federal government is doing what it can to improve the security of the communications it has over the Internet with citizens and contractors.

The U.S. government is "standing up and saying that for all the right reasons, DNSSEC is the path to pursue,’’ Daigle says. "It’s a good move because it’s proactive. They’re trying to address the security of their DNS resources before there is the kind of critical security disaster that many people have posited is needed before DNSSEC would be deployed.’’

Experts say the OMB mandate may encourage ISPs to support DNSSEC, too, as their customers are heavy users of .gov Web sites.

"By the end of the year, a large number of ISPs will all have DNSSEC deployed,’’ Joffe predicts. "There will no longer be an excuse for ISPs not to implement DNSSEC knowing they have customers that go to government Web sites.’’

The U.S. federal government will be among the first organizations in the world to deploy security enhancements to the top-level domain it operates, which is .gov.

Countries that have deployed DNSSEC in their top-level domains include Sweden, Puerto Rico, Bulgaria and Brazil.  

DNS vendors hope the federal DNSSEC mandate will lead to broader adoption of the standard across the Internet.

"We’ve seen a fair amount of interest in DNSSEC outside the U.S….but we haven’t had a whole lot of momentum inside the U.S.,’’ says Cricket Liu, vice president of architecture at InfoBlox. "My hope is that this is the beginning of getting the ball rolling in the U.S.’’

What about the root and .com?

While significant, the OMB mandate is missing a few key components that are necessary to drive DNSSEC deployment across the Internet.

First, the OMB memo says nothing about when the Internet’s root servers will support DNSSEC.

Second, the memo doesn’t address whether the U.S. government will require VeriSign, which operates the popular .com and .net top-level domains, to support DNSSEC.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the arm of the U.S. government that oversees the Internet’s DNS infrastructure, has not set a deadline for DNSSEC deployment for the root servers, .com or .net.

"NTIA recognizes the potential benefits of a DNSSEC signed root zone file and is actively examining various implementation models in coordination with other U.S. government agencies as well as all the other relevant stakeholders, including [The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers] and VeriSign, with whom the Department has existing relevant legal relationships,’’ according to an NTIA statement.

NTIA’s statement said the agency will not take any action that would affect the operational stability or efficiency of the DNS.

"A DNSSEC signed root zone would represent one of the most significant changes to the DNS infrastructure since it was created; therefore any changes cannot be taken lightly considering that the Internet DNS is a global infrastructure on which the global economy relies,’’ the statement said.

VeriSign has been running DNSSEC pilot projects for several years, and it offers free DNSSEC tools on its Web site for developers.  

VeriSign operates two of the Internet’s 13 root servers. In March 2008, VeriSign created a DNSSEC testbed for all the root zone operators to use.  

"The testbed is going well,’’ says Ken Silva, CTO for VeriSign. "We’ve gathered a lot of data ….This is all part of the process to be ready if and when the full Internet is ready to deploy DNSSEC.’’

VeriSign hasn’t committed to supporting DNSSEC in .com and .net. As of June 2008, .com and .net supported 87.3 million domain names, a figure that is up 20% from the previous year, according to VeriSign.

Silva says .com and .net will not be upgraded with DNSSEC until after the root.

"This is not something that is going to happen overnight,’’ says Silva, who predicts it will be another three years until the root servers support DNSSEC. "For full DNSSEC deployment Internet-wide, you could be talking decades.’’

Experts say full-scale deployment of DNSSEC won’t happen until the root., .com and .net are authenticated with digital signatures.

"Having the root signed is fairly important,’’ Kolkman says. "Obviously, .com is the 300-pound gorilla in the room. If .com were signed, that would pull a lot of people into DNSSEC, but having the root signed gives a more global signal.’’

Chicken-and-egg dilemma

Internet engineers developed DNSSEC in 1997, but the technology hasn’t been widely deployed because it suffers from the classic chicken-and-egg dilemma.

DNSSEC doesn’t protect against spoofing attacks unless it’s widely deployed across the Internet’s DNS infrastructure. Web site operators don’t benefit much from DNSSEC unless it’s deployed at the top-level domain. The top-level domains haven’t supported DNSSEC because there hasn’t been demand from Web site operators.

With the OMB mandate, it appears the egg is cracking. Other top-level domains interested in rolling out DNSSEC include the Pubic Interest Registry’s .org. http://blog.internetgovernance.org/blog/_archives/2008/4/25/3659794.html and Poland’s country code, .pl

One reason DNSSEC has been slow to catch on is that it is difficult to deploy. Network managers will need tools that help them generate and store cryptographic keys in a secure manner, plus they will have to update those keys on a regular basis in order to support DNSSEC.

"It has been a complicated and time-consuming exercise for people to deploy DNSSEC,’’ Beckett says. That’s one reason Secure64 received a $1 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security earlier this year to develop an automated DNSSEC signing solution that became the just-released Secure64 DNS Signer product.

"DHS wanted to prime the pump to get commercial products out there to remove that complexity and to make it possibility to deploy DNSSEC in a matter of days or weeks, rather than the months and months it might take them today,’’ Beckett adds.

OMB says enough commercial DNSSEC products are available to warrant deployment across .gov.

"The U.S. enjoys a robust and dynamic commercial marketplace that will continue to meet our needs,’’ Evans says. "The Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate has been leading the research and development associated with this initiative. The National Institute for Standards and Technology is responsible for developing DNSSEC standards, and the General Services Administration is ensuring service-based solutions are available.’’

DNSSEC experts are encouraging corporate network managers to view the federal mandate as a sign that DNSSEC is real.

"What I think you should take away from this as corporate IT managers is that DNSSEC is coming. DNNSSEC is real, and it’s out of the experimental stage,’’ Daigle says. "It’s OK to buy products and equipment to support it.’’

Network managers also should take a good look at DNSSEC because of the Kaminsky bug, experts say. This is especially true of industries such as banking and e-commerce that battle phishing attacks.

The Kaminsky bug "is a verifiable and credible business case for actually deploying DNSSEC, not just in the government but in private industry,’’ Joffe says. "The only solution we know of that is 100% correct in solving the problem of DNS cache poisoning is DNSSEC.’’


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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