Network Working Group J. Levine
Internet-Draft Taughannock Networks
Intended status: Experimental September 20, 2015
Expires: March 23, 2016

Encoding mailbox local-parts in the DNS


Many applications would like to store per-mailbox information securely in the DNS. Mapping mailbox local-parts into the DNS is a difficult problem, due to the fuzzy matching that most mail systems do, and the DNS design that only does exact matching. We propose several experimental approaches that attempt to implement the required fuzzy matching through DNS queries.

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction

E-mail mailboxes consist of a local-part (sometimes informally called left hand side or LHS), an @-sign and a domain name. While the domain name works like any other domain name, the local-part can contain any ASCII characters, up to 64 characters long. Mailboxes in Internationalized mail [RFC6532] can contain arbitrary UTF-8 characters in the local-part, not just ASCII. (The domain name also can contain UTF-8 U-labels, but the process to translate U-labels to ASCII A-labels for DNS resolution is well defined and is not further addressed here.) The DNS protocol is 8-bit clean, other than ASCII case folding, although some DNS provisioning software does not handle characters outside the ASCII set very well.

Mail systems usually handle variant forms of local-parts. The most common variants are ASCII upper and lower case, which are generally treated as equivalent. But many other variants are possible. Some systems allow and ignore "noise" characters such as dots, so local parts johnsmith and John.Smith would be equivalent. Many systems allow "extensions" such as john-ext or mary+ext where john or mary is treated as the effective local-part, and the ext is passed to the recipient for further handling. Yet other systems use an LDAP or other directory to do approximate matching, so an address such as john.smith might also match jsmith so long as there's no other address that also matches.

[RFC5321] and its predecessors have always made it clear that only the recipient MTA is allowed to interpret the local-part of an address:

This presents a problem when attempting to map local-parts into the DNS, since the DNS only handles exact matchies, and clients cannot make any assumptions about variants of local parts, and hence cannot try to normalize variants to a "standard" version published in the DNS.

This document suggests some approaches to shoehorn local-parts into the DNS. Since none of them have, to our knowledge, been implemented they are all presented as experiments, with the hope that people implement them, see how well the work, and perhaps later select one of them for standardization.

1.1. Definitions

The ABNF terms "mailbox" and "local-part" are used as in [RFC5321].

2. Summary of the approaches

3. Literal bytes

Since the DNS protocol is mostly 8-bit clean, one can put the local-part into the DNS as is. The suggested separator is _lmailbox so the address would be represented as:


(The \. is the master file convention for a literal dot in a name.) The maximum length of a local-part is 64 characters, while a DNS name component is limited to 63, but actual local-parts of 64 characters are vanishingly rare, and systems with distinct mailboxes with names that differ only in the 64th character even rarer. It also cannot distinguish between upper and lower case ASCII characters, but MTAs that do not treat them the same are also very rare.

This has the benefit of simplicity--the server can directly see exactly what name the client is looking up. Its disdvantage is that some provisioning software does not handle names well if they contain characters outside the usual ASCII printing character set. Its other characteristics are similar to those for encoded bytes, described next.

4. Encoded bytes

To avoid problems with characters in DNS names, we can encode the local-part with a simple reversible transformation that represents names using the hostname subset of ASCII. To preserve lexical order, which might be useful, take the local-part, pad it out to 64 bytes with xFF bytes, which are invalid both in ASCII and UTF-8, and break the string into two 32 byte chunks. Then encode each chunk as 52 characters in a variant of base32, with each 5-bit section represented as a character from the sequence 0-9a-v. Then use the encoded low part, a dot, and the encoded high part as end of the DNS name. The suggested separator is _emailbox so the address would be represented as:

vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvg. 89nm4bijdlkn8q7vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvg.

(The name is is displayed on several lines to make it fit in the margins, but the actual name is one long string delimited by dots.) Since many local parts are 32 bytes or less, a simple optimization would be to omit the low part if it's all encoded 0xff bytes.

4.1. Static or Dynamic name servers

A mail server with a small set of variants could export the names as either literal or encoded bytes to be served by an ordinary authoritative DNS server. A mail server with the more typical wide range of variants could be lashed up to a special purpose DNS server that recovers the local-part from the literal or encoded bytes, figures out what key it corresponds to, and synthesizes an key record, or NXDOMAIN if there isn't one.

4.2. All names valid

Synthesizing NXDOMAIN responses is likely to be hard, due to the difficulty of figuring what the valid addresses above and below it are (or even worse, the NSEC3 hashes.) Also, a static zone with NSEC is easily enumerated, which would leak the set of mailboxes in the domain.

A dynamic server has the option of returning a record for every query for a syntactically valid encoded name, i.e. anything that is two names of 52 characters from the set [0-9a-v]. If there is no key for the mailbox (which may mean the mailbox doesn't exist or that it does exist but doesn't have a key), the key field in the record is zero length. This makes dynamic DNSSEC somewhat easier, since the server doesn't have to synthesize NXDOMAIN responses for valid encoded names, and for other names it is straightforward to compute the nearest possible encoded names. It also makes it unproductive to try to enumerate the names in the domain.

5. Encoded regular expressions

Many variant local-parts are easily described using regular expressions. For example, the local-parts matching "bobsmith" on a system that ignores ASCII case distinctions and allows dots between the characters would be described as "[Bb].?[Oo].?[Bb].?[Ss].?[Mm].?[Ii].?[Tt].?[Hh]". The local-parts for the address "bob" with optional + extensions would be "[Bb][Oo][Bb](\+.*)?" For typical variant rules, it is straightforward to generate the regular expressions, and even for variants not easily described by patterns, it is possible to enumerate distinct variants, e.g. "([Bb][Oo][Bb]|[Bb][Oo][Bb][Bb][Yy]|[Rr][Oo][Bb][Ee][Rr][Tt])".

Regular expressions are equivalent to Deterministitic Finite Automata (DFA), often called state machines, and algorithms to translate betwen them are well known. See, for example, chapter 3 of [ASU86]. Lexical analyzer generators such as lex [LESK75] take a collection of regular expressions and translate them into a DFA that can be used to match the regular expressions against input strings efficiently in a single pass through the input string with one lookup per character in the string. For Unicode text, one can either treat the string as a sequence of Unicode characters, or a sequence of the octets in the UTF-8 repreentation, and translate either into a DFA and a state machine. In the discussion below we assume the machine matches the octets, but the implementation using charactrs would be very similar.

This approach stores the state machine in the DNS, to allow DNS clients to efficiently match valid local-parts against the regular expression. The state machine in a DFA consists of a set of states, conventionally identified by decimal numbers. Each state can be a terminal state, which means that if the input is at the end of the string, the regular expression has matched. The state also has a set of transitions, pairs of (octet,state) that tell the DFA to switch to the given state based on the next input octet.

To match an input string, the client starts at state zero, then uses each octet in the input string (in this case the local-part) to choose a next state. If at any stage the octet does not have a corresponding next state, the match fails. If at the end of the string, the final state is a terminal state, the match succeeded and the terminal state identifies which regular expression it matched. The DFA matcher here is considerably simpler than the one that lex and similar programs use, since they repeatedly match expressions against a long string of input to divide it into lexical tokens, while in this application there is one input string that either matches or not.

5.1. Representing the DFA in the DNS

Each state in the DFA is represented by a collection of DNS names and records. We define a new DFA record that contains a single 16-bit field, which is the state number of the next state. Most records are of the form: IN DFA 123

In this example, ddd is the current state number as a decimal number, and cc is the hex value of the next octet. Non-terminal states have a DFA record to identify the next state. Terminal states (which may also be non-terminal states if one local-part is a prefix of another) have key records such as SMIMEA.

For wildcard subexpressions, written as "." , the cc is a * DNS wildcard. The DNS closest encloser rule allows states where a few characters have specific matches, and everything goes to a default state, as in situations were a user calls out a few specific address extensions, e.g. "bob-dnslist" and "bob-jokes" and every other extension matches "bob-.*". This encoding makes the zone considerably smaller than it would be if a record for every possible octet value had to be stored separately.

Once the local-parts are compiled into the state machine records, they are an ordinary DNS zone that can be served by an ordinary authoritative server.

5.2. Matching a local-part against a DFA

Start by turning the local-part into a list of octets. For traditional ASCII local-parts, the characters are the octets, for internationalized local-parts the characters are Unicode characters, which may be represented by several UTF-8 octets. Set the state number to zero, which is by convention the initial state.

For each octet, create a DNS name using the hex code of the current octet, the current state and _rmailbox.domain. If this is not the last octet in the local-part, look up a DFA record to find the next state. If the DFA record is found, use its value as the next state and advance to the next octet. If there is no DFA record, stop, there is no key for this name.

If this is the last octet of the local-part, look up whatever key record is desired. If it's found, it's the key for the local-part. If not, there is no key.

As a minor optimization, state number 65535 in a DFA record means a trailing wildcard that matches the rest of the local-part. This permits more efficient matching of the common extension idioms such as "bob+.*" without having to iterate through the octets in the extension. If a retrieved DFA record contains 65535, the name matched so the client fetches the key record at the same name.

6. Pointer to server

Rather than trying to encode local-parts into the DNS, publish a pointer to a per-domain web server that can provide the keys, identified by URI RR [RFC7553]. Each key type will have to register a new enumservice [RFC6117] type for naming the URI record, e.g.: URI 0 0 ""

The URI has to be https, with the name suitably verified by TLSA certificates. To find a key, take the URI, add "?mailbox={escmbx}" where {escmbx} is the full ASCII or UTF-8 mailbox name suitably hex escaped for a URI, and fetch it. The server will either return a result as application/pgp-keys or application/pkix-cert or other appropriate type or a 4xx status if there is no key available.

This is certainly slower than a single DNS lookup, but it's comparable to the sequence of lookups for the DFA encoding, and it's about the same speed as the subsequent SMTP session to send a message, so it's probably fast enough.

7. Scaling Issues

Mail systems vary from tiny home systems with a handful of users to giant public systems with hundreds of millions of users. Signing and publishing a zone with one key per user for a large mail system would likely exceed the capacity of much DNS software. For comparison, the largest signed zone as of mid-2015 is probably the .COM TLD, with about 280 million records and 117 million names. Considering the large size of key records, a zone with one key per user for a large mail system could easily be an order of magnitude larger. Hence, any approach that requires putting all of the keys into a static signed zone is unikely to be practical at scale.

With this in mind, the more promising approaches appear to be encoded names [encoded], which offers the possibility of responses generated from the underlying database on the fly, or pointer to server [pointer] going directly to a web service.

8. Security Considerations

Some approaches may make it somewhat easier to extract valid local parts for a domain. The All Names Valid option makes name searches unproductive.

The regular expression representation is difficult to reverse engineer. With NSEC records it's possible to recover the DFA and in principle to translate it back into a large regular expression, but there's no efficient way to take the regular expression and extract a useful set of distinct names. (It's easy to enumerate lots of variants of the same name, which is not useful to spammers since a blast of mail to the same recipient is typically shut down in moments by bulk counters.)

All of the usual attacks against DNS servers are likely to occur. The usual techniques for mitigating them should work. Many queries will cache poorly, but probably no worse than rDNS or DNSBL queries do now.

If PGP or S/MIME keys are published in the DNS, it is unclear what security assertions the publishing server is making about them. The server would presumably be saying this is the key for mailbox so-and-so, but S/MIME and PGP have historically tried to bind keys to users or organizations, not just mailboxes.

9. References

9.1. Normative References

[RFC5321] Klensin, J., "Simple Mail Transfer Protocol", RFC 5321, DOI 10.17487/RFC5321, October 2008.
[RFC6117] Hoeneisen, B., Mayrhofer, A. and J. Livingood, "IANA Registration of Enumservices: Guide, Template, and IANA Considerations", RFC 6117, DOI 10.17487/RFC6117, March 2011.
[RFC6532] Yang, A., Steele, S. and N. Freed, "Internationalized Email Headers", RFC 6532, DOI 10.17487/RFC6532, February 2012.
[RFC7553] Faltstrom, P. and O. Kolkman, "The Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) DNS Resource Record", RFC 7553, DOI 10.17487/RFC7553, June 2015.

9.2. Informative References

[ASU86] Aho, A., Sethi, R. and J. Ullman, "Compilers: Principles, Techniques, and Tools", 1986.
[LESK75] Lesk, M., "Lex--A Lexical Analyzer Generator", CSTR 39, DOI 10.1234/567.890, 1975.

Author's Address

John Levine Taughannock Networks PO Box 727 Trumansburg, NY 14886 Phone: +1 831 480 2300 EMail: URI: