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ICANN to flip the secret key to the internet

Kevin Murphy, July 20, 2016, Domain Tech

ICANN is about to embark on a year-long effort to warn the internet that it plans to replace the top-level cryptographic keys used in DNSSEC for the first time.

CTO David Conrad told DI today that ICANN will rotate the so-called Key Signing Key that is used as the “trust anchor” for all DNSSEC queries that happen on the internet.

Due to the complexity of the process, and the risk that something might go wrong, the move is to be announced in the coming days even though the new public key will not replace the existing one until October 2017.

The KSK is a cryptographic key pair used to sign the Zone Signing Keys that in turn sign the DNS root zone. It’s basically at the top of the DNSSEC hierarchy — all trust in DNSSEC flows from it.

It’s considered good practice in DNSSEC to rotate keys every so often, largely to reduce the window would-be attackers have to compromise them.

The Zone Signing Key used by ICANN and Verisign to sign the DNS root is rotated quarterly, and individual domain owners can rotate their own keys as and when they choose, but the same KSK has been in place since the root was first signed in 2010.

Conrad said that ICANN is doing the first rollover partly to ensure that the procedures in has in place for changing keys are effective and could be deployed in case of emergency.

That said, this first rotation is going to happen at a snail’s pace.

Key generation is a complex matter, requiring the physical presence of at least three of seven trusted key holders.

These seven individuals possess physical keys to bank-style strong boxes which contain secure smart cards. Three of the seven cards are needed to generate a new key.

Each of the quarterly ZSK signing ceremonies — which are recorded and broadcast live over the internet — takes about five hours.

The first step in the rollover, Conrad said, is to generate the keys at ICANN’s US east coast facility in October this year. A copy will be moved to a facility on the west coast in February.

The first time the public key will appear in DNS will be July 11, 2017, when it will appear alongside the current key.

It will finally replace the current key completely on October 11, 2017, by which time the DNS should be well aware of the new key, Conrad said.

There is some risk of things going wrong, which could affect domains that are DNSSEC-signed, which is another reason for the slowness of the rollover.

If ISPs that support DNSSEC do not start supporting the new KSK before the final switch-over, they’ll fail to correctly resolve DNSSEC-signed domains, which could lead to some sites going dark for some users.

There’s also a risk that the increased DNS packet sizes during the period when both KSKs are in use could cause queries to be dropped by firewalls, Conrad said.

“Folks who have things configured the right way won’t actually need to do anything but because DNSSEC is relatively new and this software hasn’t really been tested, we need to get the word out to everyone that this change is going to be occurring,” said Conrad.

ICANN will conduct outreach over the coming 15 months via the media, social media and technology conferences, he said.

It is estimated that about 20% of the internet’s DNS resolvers support DNSSEC, but most of those belong to just two companies — Google and Comcast — he said.

The number of signed domains is tiny as a percentage of the 326 million domains in existence today, but still amounts to millions of names.