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How email in transit can be intercepted using dns hijacking 05-01-18 20(02




How email in transit

can be intercepted

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How email in transit can be intercepted using dns hijacking 05-01-18 20(02

using dns hijacking

Authors Elie Bursztein Date January 2016

Reading time 5 min

his post looks at how an attacker can
intercept and read emails sent from one
email provider to another by performing a
DNS MX record hijacking attack. While our
research on the state of email delivery security
indicates that this attack is less pervasive than the
TLS downgrade attack discussed in a previous post,
it is equally effective at defeating email in-transit
encryption. This post explains how this attack
works, how it can be mitigated and to what extent
it also affects the security of a website. Before
delving intohow this attack works and
countermeasures, I will briefly summarize DNS and
DNS MX records for the readers who are not
familiar with this aspect of the Internet. If you are
familiar with this topic, you can skip the next two

Understanding DNS records

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How email in transit can be intercepted using dns hijacking 05-01-18 20(02

DNS (domain name server)records are used to

translate a domain address, lets say www.elie.net,
into an Internet address, which are commonly
known as IP addresses. This translation is needed
because computers only know how to
communicate with an IP address and not a domain
address. This translation is also helpful because it
allows multiple servers and IP addresses to have
the same domain address, which allows
redundancy and scalability. It also helps make the
Internet faster by allowing big services and CDNs
to host the same content in many different
countries on various servers and return the IP
address of the closest server to the client when
they look up the domain address. This technique is
called geoIP load balancing.

Understanding DNS MX records

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How email in transit can be intercepted using dns hijacking 05-01-18 20(02

DNS MX recordsare a specific form of DNS record

that allows us to know which IP address to use
when sending an email to a given domain. As visible
in the diagram above, when Alice wants to send an
email to Bob (bob@destination.com), her server
(smtp.source.com) needs to resolve the IP address
of Bobs mail provider server. To do this, her mail
server asks the DNS server for the MX record for
the domain, destination.com. The server will reply
with the IP address that Alices server will connect
to to deliver the email to Bob. In our example, Bobs
server has the IP address

DNS MX record hijacking

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How email in transit can be intercepted using dns hijacking 05-01-18 20(02

DNS hijacking attacks work as follows. The

attacker poses as or compromises the DNS server
used by Alices mail server to find out where to
deliver Alices email to Bob. Instead of returning
the legitimate IP address, the DNS server returns
the IP address of a server owned by the attacker, as
illustrated in the diagram above. Alices server
believes this IP address is the legitimate one for
Bobs server and delivers the email to the rogue
server. The attacker reads the email and to make
the attack invisible, forwards the email to the real
server. This attack is possible because DNS was not
designed with security in mind and as a result,
there is no default security mechanism baked into
it to authenticate that the request was sent by the
rightful owner of the domain. This shortcoming will
eventually be fixed with the deployment of
DNSSEC and DANE. This deployment and other
ways to mitigate this type of attack are discussed
at the end of this post.

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How email in transit can be intercepted using dns hijacking 05-01-18 20(02

Are websites vulnerable as well?

Can an attacker use DNS hijacking to prevent

HTTPS and read or intercept web pages? At the
moment (2015), the answer is complicated but
hopefully in a few years the answer will be a
straightforward no :) Like email until DNSSEC is
deployed and enforced, websites are vulnerable to
DNS hijacking. However, there are a few
mitigations that make such attacks significantly
harder than for emails, at least until almost the
same mitigations are deployed for emails in transit,
which is what Gmail and the other big email
providers are working on. Here are the two key
differences that make DNS attacks harder against

HTTP vs HTTPS separation: In the web world, the

non-encrypted version (HTTP) and the encrypted
version of the protocol (HTTPS) use different
addresses and are treated differently by browsers
(same orgin policy). When you enter a URL starting
with https, e.g. https://www.elie.net, you are
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How email in transit can be intercepted using dns hijacking 05-01-18 20(02

instructing your browser to establish an encrypted

connection. In that context, carrying out a DNS
hijacking attack does not help the attacker because
they will still need a valid certificate for the domain
because the browser will refuse to establish the
connection otherwise. So, if you type a URL
starting with https or click on a link with the https
prefix, you are safe.

HTTP Strict Transport Security (HTST): This

specification helps mitigate what happens when
you dont specify whether you want to talk to the
server in clear (http) or encrypted (https). Typing
the URL directly in a browser is common, for
example, www.elie.net instead of
https://www.elie.net. In that case, the browser has
no idea if you want the encrypted version of the
site or not. For backward compatibility reasons, as
some sites dont support HTTPS yet, your browser
will default to the unencrypted version. HSTS aims
to mitigate this issue by allowing websites to tell
the browsers that they should only connect over
HTTPS. Technically, a website sets HSTS by
sending a HTTP header to the browser. Once this
header is received by the browser, every
subsequent request to the site (and possibly its
subdomains) will be automatically upgraded to
HTTPS by the browser. Therefore, this also

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How email in transit can be intercepted using dns hijacking 05-01-18 20(02

protects against the set of attacks in which the

attackers supply to their victims a link that starts
with http:// in an attempt to intercept the
communication, since the browser will upgrade it
to HTTPS before the request is sent over the

Preventing DNS hijacking


The long-term solution to this issue is the

deployment and enforcement of DNSSEC, which
will hopefully make DNS hijacking an obsolete
attack by requiring DNS records to be signed with
the domain owners private key. This will guarantee
that an attacker wont be able to send a spoofed

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How email in transit can be intercepted using dns hijacking 05-01-18 20(02

DNS record to the client because they cant forge

the signature. This will protect every protocol,
including SMTP and HTTP, against those attacks. In
the shorter term, mail providers are working on
developing a technology similar to HSTS but for
SMTP traffic. This SSTS protocol (the name is yet
to be defined) will allow us to pin a certificate and
enforce that all emails are sent encrypted. This will
prevent both MX hijacking attacks and TLS
downgrades for providers that deploy it. This
protocol is still in the early stage of specification
but hopefully deployment is not too far in the
future. Today, signing emails with DKIM and
enforcing signing with DMARC help alleviate the
issue by preventing an attacker from modifying
intercepted emails. The attackers dont have access
to the legitimate DKIM private key, so when the
receiving server checks for the presence of DKIM
and checks the email signature, if the email was
modified in any way, the receiving server will reject
it. DMARC also helps in detecting attacks against
your domain by allowing you to supply an email
address where you will receive a statistical report
of how many emails have failed the DKIM
signature check. If you found this post useful,
please share it on your favourite social networks.
This helps me to know if my posts are useful and
motivates me to keep writing. Please also let me
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How email in transit can be intercepted using dns hijacking 05-01-18 20(02

know if you would be interested in me doing a

series of posts on how email authentication
technologies work.

# Google measurement cryptography


Recent TA L K S A N D


Inside Mirai the Data Breaches, Unmasking the

infamous IoT Phishing, or ransomware
Botnet: A Malware? kingpins

Blog post Dec 2017 Publication CCS 2017 Blog post Oct 2017

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How email in transit can be intercepted using dns hijacking 05-01-18 20(02

Elie Bursztein, leader of HOME P U B L I C AT I O N S

Google's anti-abuse
research team, which
invents ways to protect ABOUT NEWSLETTER
users against cyber-criminal
activities and Internet

Elie Bursztein © 2017

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