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Will DNSSEC ever be sexy?

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Nominet plans to bring a higher level of security to UK domain names within the next two weeks.

The .uk registry manager said on Thursday that it has implemented the new DNSSEC protocol in the .co.uk zone. Companies could be able to cryptographically sign their internet addresses as early as May 18.

"The signing of .co.uk was an important step in securing the .uk zone and continues the deployment of DNSSEC across all .uk zones managed by Nominet," the organisation said.

DNSSEC (domain name system security extensions) is an IETF standard that makes it harder for attackers to steal traffic by spoofing domain-name routing information.

If you own a domain name, DNSSEC means you can cryptographically sign your DNS records and therefore enable resolvers, such as ISPs, to automatically authenticate your servers' IP addresses.

Whenever a user tries to find your web site, they can be assured they're looking at the genuine article rather than an attack site – as long as their ISP and/or browser also supports the technology.

The security extensions are designed to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks, in which attackers intercept and rewrite DNS traffic in order to, for example, spoof online banking sites or steal email.

The .uk domain has been signed for months, but because the UK uses second-level domains such as .co.uk and .org.uk, DNSSEC has not yet been made available to everyday domain-name owners.

With .me.uk and .co.uk now signed, Nominet's plan calls for the rest of the namespace to come online with DNSSEC support within the next two weeks. Shortly thereafter, domain registrars will be able to start offering DNSSEC services to UK businesses.

The security upgrade has also recently been rolled out in .com and .net, as well dozens of other country-code and generic top-level domains.

But DNSSEC has a chicken-and-egg problem. The kind of attacks it is designed to prevent are not particularly prevalent or well publicised, and many web folks don't see the point of upgrading, despite a few low-profile campaigns to convince people that DNSSEC is "sexy".

A signed domain is of little value unless ISPs and applications are able to validate the signatures, and few developers or ISPs have shown much interest to date. The upgrade is perceived as complex, sometimes prone to configuration errors, and potentially costly.

In March, Mozilla executives said they were reluctant to put DNSSEC into Firefox natively until they were convinced it would not cause complicated error messages for end users, causing them to switch browsers. Plug-ins do currently offer DNSSEC support, however.

A handful of early adopters have announced implementation plans. Comcast is in the process of adopting DNSSEC in all of its resolvers in the US, and Paypal said it plans to sign its domain names this year, which may be the kind of high-profile support the standard needs.

Due to its complexity, Nominet plans to launch an automated DNSSEC–signing service in July. This will enable .uk registrars to offer relatively simple signing tools to their customers. Similar "one-click" services are already available in domains such as .com and .net, usually at a premium price. ®

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