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Versions: 00 01 02 03 04                                                
DNSOP WG                                             Edward Lewis
INTERNET DRAFT                                       NAI Labs
Category: I-D                                        March 2, 2001

                    Handling of DNS Zone Signing Keys

Status of this Memo

This document is an Internet-Draft and is in full conformance with all
provisions of Section 10 of RFC2026.

Internet-Drafts are working documents of the Internet Engineering Task
Force (IETF), its areas, and its working groups.  Note that other
groups may also distribute working documents as Internet-Drafts.

Internet-Drafts are draft documents valid for a maximum of six months
and may be updated, replaced, or obsoleted by other documents at any
time.  It is inappropriate to use Internet-Drafts as reference
material or to cite them other than as "work in progress."

The list of current Internet-Drafts can be accessed at

The list of Internet-Draft Shadow Directories can be accessed at

Comments should be sent to the authors or the DNSOP WG mailing list

This draft expires on September 2, 2001

Copyright Notice

Copyright (C) The Internet Society (1999-2001).  All rights reserved.


DNS Security Extensions require a greater interaction between zone
administrations sharing a zone cut.  The center of the interaction is
the handling of the zone keys of the child and the signature applied
by the parent.  DNSSEC does not include a protocol for this, but the
means of this interaction need definition to maintain the security of

1 Introduction

This document has existed for quite some time.  The purpose of this
document is to capture lessons learned regarding DNSSEC zone keys.  In
the past two years numerous workshops have been held, each adding to
the community's lessons learned.

In past editions of this document, the outline consisted of describing
the lifecycle of a key and the steps needed to get it validated by the
parent.  In this edition, a new approach is being taken.  The lessons
learned are described without regard to fitting into an operations
procedure.  The hope is to develop a better explanation of the issues
surrounding what will someday describe a "best current practice."

2 Terminology

Zone keys are explicitly defined in RFC 2535, but there have been
certain phrases that are increasingly used that may cause confusion to
new comers.

A zone key really refers to two cryptographic values, called a public
key and a private key.  The two values always work in tandem, hence
the singular reference.  The phrase "signing with the zone key" refers
to using the private key to generate digital signatures.  The phrase
"verifying with the zone key" refers to the use of the public key to
verify the data and signature.

3 Threats to Keys

The threats to a zone key center on threats to the private key.  There
are three ways a zone key can be come useless to the owner (and
possibly an advantage to an attacker).  The private key could be come
"exposed," "discovered," or "lost."  The latter case, a lost key,
refers to perhaps accidentally deleting the key from storage, and is a
case that is of little concern.  (Keys can be replaced easily.)

An "exposed" key refers to a private key that is seen, or copied, by
an unauthorized person.  This could happen if the host holding the key
is infiltrated or sloppy transferring of the key (such as in
unencrypted email).

A "discovered key" is one that is found through performing
cryptographic analysis of the public key, data sets and signatures.
Depending on various factors, such as algorithm and key size, a
determined analyst can reverse engineer the private key.

This latter loss is the most troublesome.  This kind of loss is what
creates the limited lifetime of a key.  Because of this, there is a
need to fully develop key changing (or rollover) procedures.

Unfortunately, there is no current recommendation on how long it would
take to discover a given private key.  Such knowledge would be
invaluable in the design on key handling procedures.

4 "Lateral Signing"

Lateral signing refers to the use of key-signing keys and data-signing
keys to balance the need to change keys (avoiding discovery) and the
need to configure new keys in resolvers.

This approach has been developed for the use of TLDs in absence of a
signed root zone.  This approach is applicable anywhere in the DNS
hierarchy, and will be needed by the root zone when it is signed.

The thought is as follows.  A zone assumes that the parent is not
secured, hence must distribute a public key to all resolvers of
interest.  This key is a key-signing key, it will be used to sign as
little as possible to minimize the risk of discovery.  Other keys are
used to sign the zone, with these keys changed roughly once a month.

At any one time, the zone's key set will have the one key-signing key
and some number of data-signing keys.  The key-signing key will sign
the zone key set, and the other key or keys, the zone data.

A resolver would start with the key-signing key configured.  When data
arrives, it does so accompanied by a signature generated by a
data-signing key.  The resolver then retrieves the data-signing key as
part of the zone key set, which is signed by the key-signing key.
Hence the chain is from key-signing key to data-signing key (signed by
key-signing key) to data (signed by data-signing key).

The term "lateral" signing comes from the observation that the
key-signing key and the data-signing key are from the same place in
the hierarchy (same owner name).

5 Getting Validation

In order for DNSSEC to scale, zones will need to have their parents
validate the zone keys.  This process is the most difficult issue
facing DNSSEC deployment.

Summarizing this needed process, a child zone sends its zone key set
to the parent, the parent signs it and returns the data to the child.
This process is complicated by its volume (number of zones) and its
repetitiveness due - to the key discovery problem.

One important issue that has been raised regarding this process is
what the parent does with the child's keys once they are signed.  One
school of thought is that the keys and signature are returned to the
child and are forgotten by the parent.  Another school of though is
that the parent retains copies of the keys and signature, perhaps even
entering them into the zone file.

The former idea enables the child to "close the loop" security-wise by
verifying that the parent signed the right keys.  It might be possible
for an attacker to intercept the submission and modify the keys.

The latter idea leaves the parent better prepared for a key change in
its zone.  If the parent changes keys mid-month, or in an emergency,
children zones (perhaps signed monthly) need to get the new
signatures.  On one workshop, this step was mishandled, resulting in
the loss of many delegations.

6 Changing Keys

When the time comes to change a zone's keys, one issue is whether it
is appropriate to retain old keys in the zone or to abruptly change
the key set (with the exception of any key-signing key).  The reason
to retain old keys is to enable old but still valid signatures to be
verified in caches.  Arguments for abrupt change include the
observation that this is the only way in which DNS can revoke

8 Size and validity period

An often-asked question is what is an appropriate key size.  As
mentioned earlier, a good guide is lacking.  In general, per
algorithm, a longer key compared to a shorter key is more difficult to
discovery but takes longer to use.  Longer keys can generally be used
longer, but signing and verification are slower.

The period of time in which a key should be used is an unknown
quantity.  This will likely be a decision based upon staffing, and on
a calendar basis.  Once a week is likely for zones requiring tight
security, once a month for others.

9 Random Numbers

One easily overlooked issue is the source of random numbers.  A good
random number generator is needed to generate truly strong keys. In
the worst case, a random number generator always returning the same
number would result in the same pair of keys being generated.  If a
zone generates a pair of keys this way and an attacker gets hold of
the same key generation software, it would be possible to discover the
private key simply by generating a pair of keys.  This, by the way,
has already been observed in workshops.

It is unfortunate that some current operating systems have poor random
number generators.  While this is improving, the machines used for key
generation and use should be selected carefully.

10 Dynamic Update

Dynamic update raises an issue regarding the protection of private
keys.  As mentioned earlier, one threat is the exposure of the private
key.  This is possible of the private key is on the same machine as
the name server, or even on any other reachable server.  Therefore,
conventional wisdom is to use non-network connected machines (perhaps
behind a firewall) for all signing activity.

Dynamic update requires the server to sign data submitted to it for a
zone.  This means the private key must be available to the name server
(on the network).

To counter this, a recommendation is offered to segregate dynamic
update zones from static zones.  This limits the risk to static data
if a dynamic update zone key is exposed.  In addition, some issues
have been discovered with signed dynamic update zones, particularly
the mechanism by which to refresh signatures, which also call for
separating crucial static data from dynamic data.

11 IANA Considerations

This document does not place any requirements on the assigned numbers

12 Security Considerations

This entire document is a note on security considerations.  If the
zone key is mishandled, in a way that compromises its security, then
the security of its zone is compromised.

13 References

At some point.

14 Author's Address

Edward Lewis
3060 Washington Rd (Rte 97)
Glenwood, MD 21738

15 Acknowledgements

The following individuals and groups have made significant input into
the content of this document: the attendees of the NIC-SE work shop on
DNSSEC, May 18 and 19, 1999, also Olafur Gudmundsson, and Brian

A second workshop held by the CAIRN research network September 29 and
30th also provided input to this document.  Dan Massey has provided
input based upon this workshop and experience with DNSSEC in CAIRN.

More workshops are to be acknowledged.

16 Full Copyright Statement

Copyright (C) The Internet Society (1999-2001).  All Rights Reserved.

This document and translations of it may be copied and furnished to
others, and derivative works that comment on or otherwise explain it
or assist in its implementation may be prepared, copied, published and
distributed, in whole or in part, without restriction of any kind,
provided that the above copyright notice and this paragraph are
included on all such copies and derivative works.  However, this
document itself may not be modified in any way, such as by removing
the copyright notice or references to the Internet Society or other
Internet organizations, except as needed for the purpose of developing
Internet standards in which case the procedures for copyrights defined
in the Internet Standards process must be followed, or as required to
translate it into languages other than English.

The limited permissions granted above are perpetual and will not be
revoked by the Internet Society or its successors or assigns.

This document and the information contained herein is provided on an

Edward Lewis                                                NAI Labs
Phone: +1 443-259-2352                      Email: lewis@tislabs.com

Dilbert is an optimist.

Opinions expressed are property of my evil twin, not my employer.