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Hacker hostage crisis at ICANN secret key ceremony! (on TV)

Kevin Murphy, March 24, 2017, 10:10:17 (UTC), Gossip

One of ICANN’s Seven Secret Key-Holders To The Internet got taken out as part of an elaborate heist or something on American TV this week.

In tense scenes, a couple of secret agents or something with guns were forced to break into one of ICANN’s quarterly root zone key signing ceremonies to prevent a hacker or terrorist or something from something something, something something.

The stand-off came after the secret agents or whatever discovered that a hacker called Mayhew had poisoned a guy named Adler, causing a heart attack, in order to secure his position as a replacement ICANN key-holder and hijack the ceremony.

This all happened on a TV show called Blacklist: Redemption that aired in the US March 16.

I’d be lying if I said I fully understood what was supposed to be going on in the episode, not being a regular viewer of the series, but here’s the exposition from the beginning of the second act.

Black List

Botox Boss Lady: Seven keys control the internet? That can’t be possible.

Neck Beard Exposition Guy: They don’t control what’s on it, just how to secure it. All domain names have an assigned number. But who assigns the numbers?

Soap Opera Secret Agent: Key holders?

Neck Beard Exposition Guy: Seven security experts randomly selected by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

Bored Secret Agent: Max Adler’s wife mentioned a key ceremony.

Neck Beard Exposition Guy: Yeah, four times a year the key holders meet to generate a master key and to assign new numbers, to make life difficult for hackers who want to direct folks to malicious sites or steal their credit card information.

Botox Boss Lady: But by being at the ceremony, Mayhew gets around those precautions?

Neck Beard Exposition Guy: Oh, he does more than that. He can route any domain name to him.

That’s the genuine dialogue. ICANN, jarringly, isn’t fictionalized in the way one might usually expect from US TV drama.

The scene carries on to explain the elaborate security precautions ICANN has put in place around its key-signing ceremonies, including biometrics, smart cards and the like.

The fast-moving show then cuts to the aforementioned heist situation, in which our villain of the week takes an ICANN staffer hostage before using the root’s DNSSEC keys to somehow compromise a government data drop and download a McGuffin.

Earlier this week I begged Matt Larson, ICANN’s VP of research and a regular participant in the ceremonies (which are real) to watch the show and explain to me what bits reflect reality and what was plainly bogus.

“There are some points about it that are quite close to how the how the root KSK administration works,” he said, describing the depiction as “kind of surreal”.

“But then they take it not one but two steps further. The way the ceremony happens is not accurate, the consequences of what happens at the ceremony are not accurate,” he added.

“They talk about how at the ceremony we generate a key, well that’s not true. It’s used for signing a new key. And then they talk about how as a result of the ceremony anyone can intercept any domain name anywhere and of course that’s not true.”

The ceremonies are used to sign the keys that make end-to-end DNSSEC possible. By signing the root, DNSSEC resolvers have a “chain of trust” that goes all the way to the top of the DNS hierarchy.

Black ListThe root keys just secure the bit between the root at the TLDs. Compromising them would not enable a hacker to immediately start downloading data from the site of his choosing, as depicted in the show. He’d then have to go on to compromise the rest of the chain.

“You’d have to create an entire path of spoofed zones to who you wanted to impersonate,” Larson said. “Your fake root zone would have to delegate to a fake TLD zone to a fake SLD zone and so on so you could finally convince someone they were going to the address that you wanted.”

“If you could somehow compromise the processes at the root, that alone doesn’t give you anything,” he said.

But the show did present a somewhat realistic description of how the ceremony rooms (located in Virginia and California, not Manhattan as seen on TV) are secured.

Among other precautions, the facilities are secured with smart cards and PINs, retina scans for ICANN staff, and have reinforced walls to prevent somebody coming in with a sledgehammer, Larson said.

Blacklist: Redemption airs on Thursday nights on NBC in the US, but I wouldn’t bother if I were you.

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Comments (2)

  1. Steve Gobin says:

    Great article. 3-4 months ago, there was an episode of Elementary (sorry, I can’t recall which one) that included the 7 key-holders in its script. However they didn’t use the name ICANN but replaced it with a factitious organization name.

    Whatever these fictions correspond or don’t correspond to the reality, they will end up scaring the real key-holders.

  2. Acro says:

    At least it wasn’t Mr. Robot.

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