Internet-wide security update put on hold over fears 60 million people would be kicked offline

ICANN delays KSK rollover after new data derails plans

A multi-year effort to update the internet's overall security has been put on hold just days before it was due to be introduced, over fears that as many as 60 million people could be forced offline.

DNS overseer ICANN announced on Thursday it had postponed the rollout of a new root zone "key signing key" (KSK) used to secure the internet's foundational servers after it received fresh information that indicated its deployment would be more problematic than expected.

The KSK acts as an anchor for the global internet: it builds a chain of trust from the root zone down through the whole domain name system so that DNS resolvers – software that turns addresses like into network addresses like – can verify they're getting good valid results to their queries.

Internet engineers knew that introducing a longer and hence more secure public-private key pair would cause some old and poorly configured systems to throw out errors, and so have embarked on a slow rollout that started back in May 2016.

In recent weeks, ICANN representatives have been attending conferences to warn ISPs and other internet infrastructure companies about the change and set up an online test for people to check if their systems will work. The change was due to take place on October 11, and just last week ICANN was confident that any problems would be minimal.

However, analysis of data provided by dot-com operator Verisign, via DNS protocol RFC 8145, and then confirmed by ICANN revealed a roadblock on the information superhighway.

Valid concerns

More than half of the internet's critical root servers have been reporting that a large number of validators on the internet – between five and eight per cent – report only having the 2010 version of the KSK key in their systems, as opposed to reporting both the 2010 version and the new 2017 version. This data also only comes from machines running the most recent versions of DNS software BIND, so the real problem may be even larger.

What this means is that when the internet is "rolled over" to the 2017 version, the validators without that key will not resolve domain names correctly, and people relying on those systems will find themselves effectively kicked off the 'net, unable to connect to websites and other online services.

How many people? ICANN estimates that the rollover will impact one quarter of all internet users – so roughly 750 million people. And taking the high-end data reports of eight percent failures, that means the rollover could risk effectively kicking no fewer than 60 million people off the internet in a single day.

Unsurprisingly, ICANN has decided that was not a great plan and so has postponed the rollout until the first quarter of next year at the earliest.

"The security, stability and resiliency of the domain name system is our core mission," said ICANN CEO Göran Marby in a statement, adding:

We would rather proceed cautiously and reasonably, than continue with the roll on the announced date of 11 October. It would be irresponsible to proceed with the roll after we have identified these new issues that could adversely affect its success and could adversely affect the ability of a significant number of end users.

What does ICANN propose to do about the problem? Name and shame.

The organization is planning to publish a full list of resolvers that listed having only the 2010 KSK key, and then ask the internet community to help identify where they are and figure out what the problem is, and how to update them.

There are a number of reasons why systems may not be ready to accept the new KSK key:

  • An old configuration with the 2010 key written into the code itself.
  • A failure to implement the RFC 5011 protocol that will automatically update the key.
  • Flaws or conflicts in software that prevent the automatic rollover from happening, or accepting the change when it does happen.

No matter what the reason, it is an indication of how incredibly difficult it is to update the internet on a network-wide basis. Just look at IPv6. ®

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