The Internet is a dangerous place in the best of times. Sometimes Internet engineers find ways to mitigate the worst of these threats, and sometimes they fail. Every now and then, however, a major Internet company finds a solution that actually makes the situation worse for just about everyone. Today I want to talk about one of those cases, and how a big company like Google might be able to lead the way in fixing it.
This post is about the situation with Domain Keys Identified Mail (DKIM), a harmless little spam protocol that has somehow become a monster. My request is simple and can be summarized as follows:
Dear Google: would you mind rotating and publishing your DKIM secret keys on a periodic basis? This would make the entire Internet quite a bit more secure, by removing a strong incentive for criminals to steal and leak emails. The fix would cost you basically nothing, and would remove a powerful tool from hands of thieves.
That’s the short version. Read on for the long.
What the heck is DKIM, and how does it protect my email?
Electronic mail was created back in the days when the Internet was still the ARPANET. This was a gentler time when modern security measures — and frankly, even the notion that the Internet would need security — was a distant, science-fiction future.
The early email protocols (like SMTP) work on the honor system. Emails can arrive at your mail server directly from a sender’s mail server, or they can pass through intermediaries. In either case, when an email says it comes from your friend Alice, you trust that it comes from Alice. What possible reason would there be for anyone to lie?
The mainstream adoption of email showed that this attitude was pretty badly miscalibrated. In the space of a few years, Internet users discovered that there were plenty of people who would lie about who they were. Most of these were email spammers, who were thrilled that SMTP allowed them to impersonate just about any sender — your friend Alice, your boss, the IRS, a friendly Nigerian prince. Without a reliable mechanism to prevent that spamming, email proved hilariously vulnerable to spoofing.
To their great credit, email providers quickly realized that email without sender authenticity was basically unworkable. To actually filter emails properly, they needed to be able to verify at least which server an email had originated from. This property has a technical name; it’s called origin authenticity.
The solution to the origin authenticity, like all fixes to core Internet protocols, is kind of a band-aid. Email providers were asked to bolt on an (optional) new cryptographic extension called Domain Keys Identified Mail, or DKIM. DKIM bakes digital signatures into every email sent by a participating mail server. When a recipient mail server obtains a DKIM-signed email claiming to originate from, say, Google: it first looks up Google’s public key using the Domain Name System (DNS). The recipient can now verify a signature to ensure that the email is authentic and unmodified — the signature covers the content and most of the headers — and they can then use that knowledge as an input to spam filtering. (A related protocol called ARC offers a similar guarantee.)
Of course, this approach isn’t perfect. Since DKIM is optional, malicious intermediaries can “strip off” the DKIM signatures from a given email in an effort to convince recipients that the email was never DKIM-signed. A related protocol, DMARC, uses DNS to allow mail senders to broadcast preferences that enforce the checking of signatures on their email messages. These two protocols, when used together, should basically wipe out spoofing on the Internet.
What’s the problem with DKIM/ARC/DMARC, and what’s “deniability”?
As an anti-spam measure there’s nothing really wrong with DKIM, ARC and DMARC. The problem is that DKIM signing has an unexpected side effect that goes beyond its initial spam-filtering purpose. Put simply:
DKIM provides a life-long guarantee of email authenticity that anyone can use to cryptographically verify the authenticity of stolen emails, even years after they were sent.
This new non-repudiation feature was not part of DKIM’s design goals. The designers didn’t intend it, nobody discussed whether it was a good idea, and it seems to have largely taken them by surprise. Worse, this surprise feature has some serious implications: it makes us all more vulnerable to extortion and blackmail.
To see the problem, it helps to review the goals of DKIM.
The key design goal of DKIM was to prevent spammers from forging emails while in transit. This means that receiving servers really do need to be able to verify that an email was sent by the claimed origin mail server, even if that email transits multiple untrusted servers on the way.
However, once mail transmission is complete, the task of DKIM is complete. In short: the authenticity guarantee only needs to hold for a short period of time. Since emails generally take only a few minutes (or hours, in unusual cases) to reach their destination, the authenticity guarantee does not need to last for years, nor do these signatures need to be exposed to users. And yet here we are.
Until a few years ago, nobody thought much about this. In fact, in the early DKIM configurations were kind of a joke: mail providers chose DKIM signing keys that were trivial for motivated attackers to crack. Back in 2012 a security researcher named Zachary Harris pointed out that Google and several other companies were using using 512-bit RSA to sign DKIM. He showed that these keys could be “cracked” in a matter of hours on rented cloud hardware, and then used these keys to forge emails from Larry and Sergey.
Providers like Google reacted to the whole “Larry and Sergey” embarassment in the way you’d expect. Without giving the implications any serious thought, they quickly ramped up their keys to 1024-bit or 2048-bit RSA. This stopped the forgeries, but inadvertently turned a harmless anti-spam protocol into a life-long cryptographic authenticity stamp — one that can be used to verify the provenance of any email dump, regardless of how it reaches the verifier.
You’re crazy. Nobody uses DKIM to authenticate emails.
For better or for worse, the DKIM authenticity stamp has been widely used by the press, primarily in the context of political email hacks. It’s real, it’s important, and it’s meaningful.
The most famous example is also one of the most divisive: back in 2016, Wikileaks published a batch of stolen emails stolen from John Podesta’s Google account. Since the sourcing of these emails was murky, WikiLeaks faced a high burden in proving to readers that these messages were actually authentic. DKIM provided an elegant solution: every email presented on Wikileaks’ pages publicly states the verification status of the attached DKIM signatures, something you can see today. The site also provides a helpful resource page for journalists, explaining how DKIM proves that the emails are real.
But the Podesta emails weren’t the end of the DKIM story. In 2017, ProPublica used DKIM to verify the authenticity of emails allegedly sent to a critic by President Trump’s personal lawyer Mark Kasowitz. In 2018, the Associated Press used it once again to verify leaked emails tying a Russian lawyer to Donald Trump Jr. And it happened again this year, when the recipients of an alleged “Hunter Biden laptop” provided a single 2015 email to Rob Graham for DKIM verification, in an effort to overcome journalistic skepticism at the sourcing of their information.
Some will say that DKIM verification doesn’t matter, and that leaked emails will be believed or rejected based on their content alone. Yet multiple news organizations’ decision to rely on DKIM clearly demonstrates how wrong that assumption is. News organizations, including Wikileaks, implicitly admit that questionable sourcing of emails creates doubt: perhaps so much so that credible publication in a national news organization is impossible. DKIM short-circuits this problem, and allows anyone to leap right over that hurdle.
The Associated Press even provides a DKIM verification tool.
In short, an anti-spam protocol originally designed to provide short-lived authenticity for emails traveling between email servers has mutated — without any discussion or consent from commercial mail customers — into a tool that provides cryptographically undeniable authentication of every email in your inbox and outbox. This is an amazing resource for journalists, hackers, and blackmailers.
But it doesn’t benefit you.
So what can we do about this?
DKIM was never intended to provide long-lived authenticity for your emails. The security guarantees it provides are important, but need only exist for a period of hours (perhaps days on the outside) from the moment a mail server transmits your email. The fact that DKIM can be used to prove authenticity of stolen email from as long ago as 2015 is basically a screwup: the result of misuse and misconfiguration by mail providers who should know better.
Fortunately there’s an easy solution.
DKIM allows providers to periodically “rotate”, or replace, the keys that they use to sign outgoing emails. The frequency of this rotation is slightly limited by the caching behavior of the DNS infrastructure, but these limits aren’t very tight. Even a big provider like Google can easily replace its signing keys at least every few weeks without disrupting email transit. This sort of key replacement is good practice in any case, and it represents part of the solution.
Of course, merely replacing DKIM keypairs does nothing by itself: smart people on the Internet routinely archive DKIM public keys. This is, in fact, how a 2015 Google email was verified in 2020: the key that Google used for signing DKIM emails during that long-ago time period (a single key was used from 2012-2016, seriously Google, this is just malpractice!) is no longer in use, but has been cached in various places on the Internet.
Solving this problem requires only a small additional element: Google needs to publish the secret key portion of its keypairs once they’ve been rotated out of service. They should post this secret key in an easily-accessible public location so that anyone can use it to forge alleged historical emails from any Google user. The public availability of Google’s signing key would make any new email leak cryptographically deniable. Since any stranger would have been able to forge a DKIM signatures, DKIM signatures become largely worthless as evidence of authenticity.
(People who run their own mail servers can achieve the same thing automatically by using this awesome script.)
Google could launch the process right now by releasing its ancient 2016-era private keys. Since the secrecy of these serves literally no security purpose at this point, except for allowing third parties to verify email leaks, there’s no case for keeping these values secret at all. Just dump them.
(A paranoid reader might also consider the possibility that motivated attackers might already have stolen Google’s historical secret DKIM keys. After all, DKIM signing keys aren’t exactly the crown jewels of Google’s ecosystem, and are unlikely to receive Google’s strongest security efforts. By keeping its keys secret in that case, Google is simply creating a situation where specific actors can counterfeit emails with impunity.)
But DKIM authenticity is great! Don’t we want to be able to authenticate politicians’ leaked emails?
Modern DKIM deployments are problematic because they incentivize a specific kind of crime: theft of private emails for use in public blackmail and extortion campaigns. An accident of the past few years is that this feature has been used primarily by political actors working in a manner that many people find agreeable — either because it suits a partisan preference, or because the people who got “caught” sort of deserved it.
But bad things happen to good people too. If you build a mechanism that incentivizes crime, sooner or later you will get crimed on.
Email providers like Google have made the decision, often without asking their customers, that anyone who guesses a customer’s email password — or phishes one of a company’s employees — should be granted a cryptographically undeniable proof that they can present to anyone in order to prove that the resulting proceeds of that crime are authentic. Maybe that proof will prove unnecessary for the criminals’ purposes. But it certainly isn’t without value. Removing that proof from criminal hands is an unalloyed good.
The fact that we even have to argue about this makes me really sad.
Timestamping, better crypto, and other technical objections
Every time I mention this idea of dumping old secret keys, I get a batch of technical objections from people who make really good points but are thinking about a stronger threat model than the one we generally face.
The most common objection is that publication of secret keys only works if the signed emails were obtained after the secret keys were published. By this logic, which is accurate, any emails stolen and published before the DKIM secret key is published are not deniable. For example, if someone hacks your account and immediately publishes any email you receive in real-time, then cryptographic verifiability is still possible.
Some even pose a clever attack where recipients (or hackers who have persistent access to your email account) use a public timestamping service, such as a blockchain, to verifiably “stamp” each email they receive with the time of receipt. This allows such recipients to prove that they had the signed email before the DKIM secret key became public — and checkmate.
This is a nice theoretical hack and it’s clever, but it’s also basically irrelevant in the sense that it addresses a stronger threat model. The most critical issue with DKIM today is that DKIM signatures sit around inside your archived mailbox. This means that a hacker who breaches my Gmail account today can present DKIM signatures on emails I sent/received years ago. Publishing old DKIM secret keys would take care of this problem instantly. Fixing the theoretical “real-time hacker” scenario can wait until later.
Another objection I receive sometimes is that cryptographic authentication is a useful feature. And I agree with that, in some settings. The problem with DKIM is that no customers asked for this feature as a default in their commercial mail account. If people want to cryptographically authenticate their emails, there exists a lovely set of tools they can use for this purpose.
Finally, there’s a question of whether the DKIM deniability problem can be fixed with exciting new cryptography. As a cryptographic researcher, I’m enthusiastic about that direction. In fact: my co-authors Mike Specter and Sunoo Park and I recently wrote a paper about how a long-term fix to DKIM might work. (Mike wrote a great blog post about it.) I don’t claim that our solution is necessarily the best approach, but I’m hoping that it will inspire more work in the future.
But sometimes the best solution is the obvious one. And right now, Google as the largest commercial mail provider, could make a huge impact (and protect their customers against future leaks) by doing something very simple. It’s a mystery to me why they won’t.