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ICANN faces critical choice as security experts warn against key rollover

Kevin Murphy, August 23, 2018, 06:17:47 (UTC), Domain Tech

Members of ICANN’s top security body have advised the organization to further delay plans to change the domain name system’s top cryptographic key.

Five dissenting members of the influential, 22-member Security and Stability Advisory Committee said they believe “the risks of rolling in accordance with the current schedule are larger than the risks of postponing”.

Their comments relate to the so-called KSK rollover, which would see ICANN for the first time ever change the key-signing key that acts as the trust anchor for all DNSSEC queries on the internet.

ICANN is fairly certain rolling the key will cause DNS resolution problems for some — possibly as much as 0.05% of the internet or a couple million people — but it currently lacks the data to be absolutely certain of the scale of the impact.

What it does know — explained fairly succinctly in this newly published guide (pdf) — is that within 48 hours of the roll, a certain small percentage of internet users will start to see DNS resolution fail.

But there’s a prevailing school of thought that believes the longer the rollover is postponed, the bigger that number of affected users will become.

The rollover is currently penciled in for October 11, but the ultimate decision on whether to go ahead rests with the ICANN board of directors.

David Conrad, the organization’s CTO, told us last week that his office has already decided to recommend that the roll should proceed as planned. At the time, he noted that SSAC was a few days late in delivering its own verdict.

Now, after some apparently divisive discussions, that verdict is in (pdf).

SSAC’s majority consensus is that it “has not identified any reason within the SSAC’s scope why the rollover should not proceed as currently planned.”

That’s in line with what Conrad, and the Root Server System Advisory Committee have said. But SSAC noted:

The assessment of risk in this particular area has some uncertainty and therefore includes a component of subjective judgement. Individuals (including some members of the SSAC) have different assessments of the overall balance of risk of the resumption of this plan.

It added that it’s up to the ICANN board (comprised largely of non-security people) to make the final call on what the acceptable level of risk is.

The minority, dissenting opinion gets into slightly more detail:

The decision to proceed with the keyroll is a complex tradeoff of technical and non-technical risks. While there is risk in proceeding with the currently planned roll, we understand that there is also risk in further delay, including loss of confidence in DNSSEC operational planning, potential for more at-risk users as more DNSSEC validation is deployed, etc.

While evaluating these risks, the consensus within the SSAC is that proceeding is preferable to delay. We personally evaluate the tradeoffs differently, and we believe that the risks of rolling in accordance with the current schedule are larger than the risks of postponing and focusing heavily on additional research and outreach, and in particular leveraging newly developed techniques that provide better signal and fidelity into potentially impacted parties.

We would like to reiterate that we understand our colleagues’ position, but evaluate the risks and associated mitigation prospects differently. We believe that the ultimate decision lies with the ICANN Board, and do not envy them with this decision.

SSAC members are no slouches when it comes to security expertise, and the dissenting members are no exception. They are:

  • Lyman Chapin, co-owner of Interisle Consulting, a regular ICANN contractor perhaps best-known to DI readers for carrying out a study into new gTLD name collisions five years ago.
  • Kimberly “kc claffy” Claffy, head of the Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis at the University of California in San Diego. CAIDA does nothing but map and measure the internet.
  • Jay Daley, a registry executive with a technical background whose career includes senior stints at .uk and .nz. He’s currently keeping the CEO’s chair warm at .org manager Public Interest Registry.
  • Warren Kumari, a senior network security engineer at Google, which is probably the largest early adopter of DNSSEC on the resolution side.
  • Danny McPherson, Verisign’s chief security officer. As well as .com, Verisign runs the two of the 13 root servers, including the master A-root. It’s running the boxes that sit at the top of the DNSSEC hierarchy.

It may be the first time SSAC has failed to reach a full-consensus opinion on a security matter. If it has ever published a dissenting opinion before, I certainly cannot recall it.

The big decision about whether to proceed or delay is expected to be made by the ICANN board during its retreat in Brussels, a three-day meeting that starts September 14.

Given that ICANN’s primary mission is “to ensure the stable and secure operation of the Internet’s unique identifier systems”, it could turn out to be one of ICANN’s biggest decisions to date.

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