Security Experts:

DNSSEC Deployment: The Time is Now

Discussions on making the Internet as secure as possible began alongside the growth of the Internet. And we’re still having those discussions because, as the Internet has evolved, so have the ways of securing it. Every aspect of the Internet calls for a unique means of being secured. As one example, let me address Internet security and domain names.

As you likely know, anything you type into your browser’s address bar or click in an email must be translated into its numerical equivalent to be located on the Internet. The translation from typed name to its numeric form is made via the Domain Name System (DNS). For example, the DNS translates a domain name like www.google.com into its IP address equivalent (173.194.75.147). And, in turn, that IP address number lets your computer locate the website in question.

Key ChainLike most things on the Internet, however, the system has vulnerabilities. Not surprisingly, those vulnerabilities offer a way for attackers to hijack requests for specific online destination, in a process called “pharming.” To help mitigate the possibility of that type of attack, comes DNS Security Extensions (DNSSEC) that let users know if the address of a website or online service is accurate.

DNSSEC does not solve every Internet-based security issue, but it does offer a more advanced level of user security for directory look-ups than is currently in use. It also complements other security technologies and provides a platform for yet-to-be-developed innovations.

For example, DNSSEC can ensure that a Web browser knows where to find the site you are trying to reach. Browsers can employ this information to help protect users from phishing attacks and from being hijacked. Although browsers don't use DNSSEC in this way today, they easily could (and probably should.) Although you can still be hijacked and your site could still be the victim of phishing attacks, including DNSSEC in an overall security strategy will help to mitigate the risk to users.

DNSSEC Deployment Challenges

Despite its strong security benefits, DNSSEC has not had an equally strong deployment track record. As recently as a year ago, DNSSEC had been deployed on less than one percent of the Internet and on only 82 out of the 300-plus top-level domains, including .INFO, .ORG, .GOV, .NET and .COM. Today, the story remains the same with no progress on 98 percent of all industry domains tested in January 2013 by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

At least the ball is starting to roll. Last year, Comcast moved to DNSSEC-validating DNS servers for its millions of customers. It also signed all of the domains used by the company, such as www.comcast.net. While that is terrific news, it makes Comcast only the first large ISP in North America to have fully implemented DNSSEC. The fact that it took until 2012 for a large American ISP to take the plunge doesn’t bode well for the rapid adoption of DNSSEC (as noted by the 98 percent “no progress” figure I cited above).

One of the possible reasons for DNSSEC’s low rate of deployment so far is that DNSSEC is complex. Few IT professionals fully understand how it works and, more importantly, there are even fewer who understand how and why it could fail. DNSSEC lacks a way to see what is occurring within the DNSSEC process itself, so it’s difficult to diagnose what’s wrong when it doesn’t work and then to correct it.

Also, there are trust issues and fear issues. According to security expert Richard Lamb, a DNS security program manager at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the lack of comfort in making changes to the “guts” of the Internet has given rise to many excuses for not starting deployment. Ironically, the fact that the Internet appears to be in generally good working order is possibly one of the reasons that the deployment of DNSSEC is still gradual.

Security, as a whole, is a tough sell. It’s not sexy. Then, until something catastrophic occurs, there’s no sense of urgency. I try to avoid using fear as a motivator, but when it comes to keeping the Internet as safe as possible for commerce, government and personal pursuits, it’s one motivator that can be effective. I think all of us in the IT field have an obligation to make security -- and the risks of not having it -- part of an ongoing conversation. And DNSSEC deployment is a great starting point.

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Ram Mohan is the Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Afilias, a global provider of Internet infrastructure services including domain name registry and DNS solutions. Ram also serves as the Security & Stability Advisory Committee's liaison to ICANN’s Board of Directors and has helped direct and write numerous policies effecting domain name registration and DNS security.