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Feds prep gov domains for net address server swap

DNSSec rising

Website security in corporate America

The US federal government is showing tangible progress as it works to meet a January deadline to implement a sweeping overhaul of its internet address servers, a move designed to harden them against attacks that could send millions of users to impostor sites run by scammers.

Paving the way for a technology known as DNSSec, information technology drones for the government have already cryptographically signed the .gov root, Jose Nazario, a security analyst at Arbor Networks, said. The implementation is by no means complete. Domain names such as senate.gov and house.gov have yet to be signed, at least not at time of writing. (Note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that president.gov had been signed. That domain doesn't exist.)

It was only August when the government announced a mandate (PDF) to implement DNSSec by January. Short for DNS Security Extensions Protocol, DNSSec is designed to close an architectural vulnerability that has plagued the net's domain name system since its inception.

While there has long been consensus that it's crucial for DNSSec to be deployed, implementation has largely languished for more than a decade as internet overseers fret over the myriad technical and bureaucratic headaches that come with the overhaul. The entry of .gov into the DNSSec club will likely provide more of an incentive to other players to get moving.

"You have now a very clear, very powerful, and potentially vocal major consumer in the US government" of DNSSec, Nazario told El Reg. "If and when important issues start to appear, you're going to have a very major player saying: 'fix this now.'"

Only a handful of other top-level domains - among them Sweden's .se and Puerto Rico's .pr - are currently using DNSSec. Others, including .org, .uk and .mil, have pledged to install the extensions soon.

The push for DNSSec was renewed in July after researcher Dan Kaminsky discovered a new way to trick name servers used by corporations and internet server providers into sending users to fraudulent websites. The attack involves flooding a name server with thousands of false pieces of information about the location of a server for Google, the Internal Revenue Service, or some other trusted website.

DNS architects developed a patch, but it merely makes the attack harder to pull off. Fixing the design flaw requires an overhaul of the DNS protocol, and that's where DNSSec comes in. It ensures that responses for a requested domain name are cryptographically signed to ensure they originated with a legitimate source.

Last week, DNS inventor Paul Mockapetris told us that only a massive blockbuster attack or applications that require DNSSec were likely to spur adoption of the technology. That is probably still the case, but the adoption by the US government is certainly a step in the right direction. ®

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