VeriSign bolsters security for .com, .net sites

More than 95 million Web sites – including 80 million using .com names and 15 million using .net names – will have access to new security mechanisms that prevent visitors from being unknowingly sent to phony sites engaged in phishing and pharming attacks.

VeriSign announced Monday that it will meet its goal of supporting DNS Security Extensions – dubbed DNSSEC -- in the .net and .com top-level domains by March 2011.

DNSSEC uses public key cryptography and digital signatures to allow Web sites to verify their domain names and corresponding IP addresses. DNSSEC prevents hackers from hijacking Web traffic and redirecting it to bogus sites, which are called cache poisoning attacks.

How DNS cache poisoning works

DNSSEC is viewed as the best way to bolster the DNS against vulnerabilities such as the Kaminsky bug discovered last year. In fact, security researcher Dan Kaminsky recommends widespread deployment of DNSSEC.

VeriSign has been working on DNSSEC deployment with Educause, a non-profit organization that operates the .edu domain for universities and colleges. VeriSign and Educause are hosting a DNSSEC testbed for universities to trial new DNS authentication mechanisms. VeriSign says it will have DNSSEC fully operational on .edu by March.

VeriSign also is working with the U.S. government to deploy DNSSEC on the DNS root servers, which are at the top of the DNS hierarchical system. VeriSign operates two of the Internet’s 13 DNS root server farms.

“Signing the root is in a testbed right now,” says Pat Kane, vice president of naming at VeriSign. “We will have a deliberate, pragmatic rollout by July 1. Then the entire DNS root zone across the globe will be signed.”

DNSSEC only works properly when it is deployed from the top of the DNS tree – the root servers – to the top-level domains such as .com and then by individual domain name holders such as www.idg.com.

VeriSign says its experience in deploying DNSSEC on the DNS root servers and .edu domain is helping the registry prepare to add authentication mechanisms to .com, which remains the Internet’s most popular domain. More than 184 million domain names were registered as of mid-2009, and 80 million of those were .com names, according to VeriSign.

“One of the challenges for .com registrars is how to make this as simple as possible,” Kane says. “When somebody registers or maintains a domain name, it needs to be seamless and not confusing for them to add DNSSEC….People will have to remember to renew their domain name, their SSL cert and now their keys.”

Kane says the trickiest part of deploying DNSSEC across .com and .net is allowing domain name registrars—such as Go Daddy, Network Solutions and Register.com—to do the key management for their customers.

“The heavy lifting has to be done by the registrars,” Kane says. “We’re developing tools that will make it more straightforward and less expensive for the registrars….Registrars that represent 80% of .com and .net registrations are actively engaged and have attended the DNSSEC workshops that we’ve sponsored.”

Kane says VeriSign plans to have DNSSEC deployed across .net by the fourth quarter of 2010 and .com by the first quarter of 2011.

Kane says there is demand for DNSSEC from financial services firms and leading e-commerce companies that want to prevent their customers from falling prey to cache poisoning attacks.

“I think you will see some of these companies deploy DNSSEC within days of our implementation,” Kane says. “The people who have the most interest are the ones who have the most to lose. Financial institutions are the ones most incentivized to do this because cache poisoning is the perfect phishing attack. The answer has been corrupted, you end up someplace else, and you never even know it.”

VeriSign says much work still needs to be done to get the Internet ready for DNSSEC. Besides registrars, ISPs and browser makers need to support the standard in order for it to work properly.

DNSSEC also needs to be deployed across more domains. VeriSign says it will add these DNS security mechanisms to two more domains that it operates -- .tv and .cc – by the end of 2011.

Corporations with large portfolios of domain names need to make sure that their registrars are rolling out DNSSEC, Kane advises. “These companies don’t just have .com and .net names, but also .info and .biz names,” he adds. “They should be encouraging their registrars to get other [top-level domains] working on this.”

The U.S. federal government is deploying DNSSEC on the .gov domain this year, and the Public Interest Registry announced support for DNSSEC on the .org domain in June. Other countries such as Sweden, Puerto Rico, Bulgaria, Brazil and Czech Republic already support this added layer of security for DNS look-ups.

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