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At long last, internet's root zone to be secured

VeriSign and ICANN to share DNSSEC duties

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The US government said Wednesday it plans to digitally sign the internet's root zone by the end of the year, a move that would end years of inaction securing the internet's most important asset.

The US Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) said it was turning to ICANN, or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, and VeriSign to implement the measure, which is known as DNSSEC. In October, the two organizations submitted separate proposals that offered sharply contrasting visions for putting the complicated framework in place.

"The parties are working on an interim approach to deployment, by year's end, of a security technology - Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC) - at the authoritative root zone (i.e., the address book) of the internet," a statement issued by the NTIA read. "There will be further consultations with the internet technical community as the testing and implementation plans are developed."

The statement left many unanswered questions about the roll-out, most notably the specific roles of the two organizations. It also omitted details about exactly how far the temporary solution would go and when a permanent fix can be expected.

The answers to such questions are crucial given known vulnerabilities in today's DNS. Last year, researcher Dan Kaminsky of security firm IOActive demonstrated a simple way to plant fraudulent entries in the root zone, which serves as the authoritative document for routing email, web requests, and other internet traffic. The bug had the potential to destroy trust as we know it on the net because it provided a low-cost way for criminals to hijack the websites of banks, government agencies, and similarly sensitive organizations.

By August, the majority of the world's DNS servers had been updated to resist Kaminsky's DNS cache-poisoning bug, but he warned the move was a temporary band-aid rather than a permanent solution.

DNSSEC is designed to fix that. It affixes a cryptographic seal to results returned from a DNS server to ensure that they haven't been forged. At the heart of the hierarchical DNS is the root zone, which contains the list of servers authorized to provide lookups for each top-level domain such as .com or .gov.

In its current form, DNSSEC has existed for about a decade but has yet to be implemented, largely due to the complexity and geopolitical tensions surrounding management of the unwieldy technology. Of particular importance is management of the root key because it controls the topmost tier of the hierarchy. Should it ever fall into the wrong hands, the internet could cease to function.

Under the interim solution, VeriSign will manage the root-signing key and ICANN will manage a separate key-signing key, Paul Levins, vice president of corporate affairs for ICANN told The Register.

Under last year's proposals, ICANN and VeriSign offered competing arguments why each should manage the root key. (The proposals and public comments responding to them are here.) Representatives from VeriSign didn't return phone calls seeking comment, and an NTIA spokesman declined to confirm ICANN's account.

"This is big," said Bart Forbes, the NTIA spokesman. "It's not something we do quickly, but we need to socialize whatever decision is made and make sure everyone is on board."

He declined to elaborate on the process the NTIA will use to seek feedback from members of the internet technical community.

ICANN is the non-profit group that was established in the late 1990s to oversee the internet's address system. VeriSign operates a wide range of businesses, including management of two of the internet's root-name servers and several businesses that manage digital certificates.

While Kaminsky and other experts claim DNSSEC is crucial for securing the internet, not everyone is so sure. Among then is Paul Mockapetris, inventor of DNS. He has long argued that widespread adoption of DNSSEC will be marred by the cost involved and incompatibilities across different systems.

"To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, this is one giant step for DNSSEC and one small step for the internet," said Mockapetris, who is chairman and chief scientist for Nominum, which sells DNS servers to service providers and telecos. "This will get us on the road to finding out if DNSSEC will work or not, but it's not going to revolutionize things anytime soon. ®

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