Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) V. Dukhovni
Request for Comments: 7672 Two Sigma
Category: Standards Track W. Hardaker
ISSN: 2070-1721 Parsons
October 2015 SMTP Security via Opportunistic DNS-Based Authentication of Named
Entities (DANE) Transport Layer Security (TLS)
This memo describes a downgrade-resistant protocol for SMTP transport
security between Message Transfer Agents (MTAs), based on the DNS-
Based Authentication of Named Entities (DANE) TLSA DNS record.
Adoption of this protocol enables an incremental transition of the
Internet email backbone to one using encrypted and authenticated
Transport Layer Security (TLS).
Status of This Memo
This is an Internet Standards Track document.
This document is a product of the Internet Engineering Task Force
(IETF). It represents the consensus of the IETF community. It has
received public review and has been approved for publication by the
Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG). Further information on
Internet Standards is available in Section 2 of RFC 5741.
Information about the current status of this document, any errata,
and how to provide feedback on it may be obtained at
Copyright (c) 2015 IETF Trust and the persons identified as the
document authors. All rights reserved.
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described in the Simplified BSD License.
This memo specifies a new connection security model for Message
Transfer Agents (MTAs). This model is motivated by key features of
inter-domain SMTP delivery, principally, the fact that the
destination server is selected indirectly via DNS Mail Exchange (MX)
records and that neither email addresses nor MX hostnames signal a
requirement for either secure or cleartext transport. Therefore,
aside from a few manually configured exceptions, SMTP transport
security is, by necessity, opportunistic (for a definition of
"Opportunistic Security", see [RFC7435]).
This specification uses the presence of DANE TLSA records to securely
signal TLS support and to publish the means by which SMTP clients can
successfully authenticate legitimate SMTP servers. This becomes
"opportunistic DANE TLS" and is resistant to downgrade and
man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks. It enables an incremental
transition of the email backbone to authenticated TLS delivery, with
increased global protection as adoption increases.
With opportunistic DANE TLS, traffic from SMTP clients to domains
that publish "usable" DANE TLSA records in accordance with this memo
is authenticated and encrypted. Traffic from legacy clients or to
domains that do not publish TLSA records will continue to be sent in
the same manner as before, via manually configured security,
(pre-DANE) opportunistic TLS, or just cleartext SMTP.
Problems with the existing use of TLS in MTA-to-MTA SMTP that
motivate this specification are described in Section 1.3. The
specification itself follows, in Sections 2 and 3, which describe,
respectively, how to locate and use DANE TLSA records with SMTP. In
Section 6, we discuss the application of DANE TLS to destinations for
which channel integrity and confidentiality are mandatory. In
Section 7, we briefly comment on the potential applicability of this
specification to Message User Agents.
The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT",
"SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "NOT RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and
"OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in
The following terms or concepts are used throughout this document:
Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack: Active modification of network
traffic by an adversary able to thereby compromise the
confidentiality or integrity of the data.
Downgrade attack: (From [RFC4949].) A type of MITM attack in which
the attacker can cause two parties, at the time they negotiate a
security association, to agree on a lower level of protection than
the highest level that could have been supported by both of them.
Downgrade-resistant: A protocol is "downgrade-resistant" if it
employs effective countermeasures against downgrade attacks.
"Secure", "bogus", "insecure", "indeterminate": DNSSEC validation
results, as defined in Section 4.3 of [RFC4035].
Validating security-aware stub resolver and non-validating
security-aware stub resolver:
Capabilities of the stub resolver in use, as defined in [RFC4033];
note that this specification requires the use of a security-aware
(Pre-DANE) opportunistic TLS: Best-effort use of TLS that is
generally vulnerable to DNS forgery and STARTTLS downgrade
attacks. When a TLS-encrypted communication channel is not
available, message transmission takes place in the clear. MX
record indirection generally precludes authentication even when
TLS is available.
Opportunistic DANE TLS: Best-effort use of TLS that is resistant to
downgrade attacks for destinations with DNSSEC-validated TLSA
records. When opportunistic DANE TLS is determined to be
unavailable, clients should fall back to pre-DANE opportunistic
TLS. Opportunistic DANE TLS requires support for DNSSEC, DANE,
and STARTTLS on the client side, and STARTTLS plus a DNSSEC
published TLSA record on the server side.
Reference identifier: (Special case of [RFC6125] definition.) One
of the domain names associated by the SMTP client with the
destination SMTP server for performing name checks on the server
certificate. When name checks are applicable, at least one of the
reference identifiers MUST match an [RFC6125] DNS-ID (or, if none
are present, the [RFC6125] CN-ID) of the server certificate (see
MX hostname: The RRDATA of an MX record consists of a 16 bit
preference followed by a Mail Exchange domain name (see [RFC1035],
Section 3.3.9). We will use the term "MX hostname" to refer to
the latter, that is, the DNS domain name found after the
preference value in an MX record. Thus, an "MX hostname" is
specifically a reference to a DNS domain name rather than any host
that bears that name.
Delayed delivery: Email delivery is a multi-hop store-and-forward
process. When an MTA is unable to forward a message that may
become deliverable later, the message is queued and delivery is
retried periodically. Some MTAs may be configured with a fallback
next-hop destination that handles messages that the MTA would
otherwise queue and retry. When a fallback next-hop destination
is configured, messages that would otherwise have to be delayed
may be sent to the fallback next-hop destination instead. The
fallback destination may itself be subject to opportunistic or
mandatory DANE TLS (Section 6) as though it were the original
Original next-hop destination: The logical destination for mail
delivery. By default, this is the domain portion of the recipient
address, but MTAs may be configured to forward mail for some or
all recipients via designated relays. The original next-hop
destination is, respectively, either the recipient domain or the
associated configured relay.
MTA: Message Transfer Agent ([RFC5598], Section 4.3.2).
MSA: Message Submission Agent ([RFC5598], Section 4.3.1).
MUA: Message User Agent ([RFC5598], Section 4.2.1).
RR: A DNS resource record as defined in [RFC1034], Section 3.6.
RRset: An RRset ([RFC2181], Section 5) is a group of DNS resource
records that share the same label, class, and type.
The Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC) add data origin
authentication, data integrity, and data nonexistence proofs to the
Domain Name System (DNS). DNSSEC is defined in [RFC4033], [RFC4034],
As described in the introduction of [RFC6698], TLS authentication via
the existing public Certification Authority (CA) PKI suffers from an
overabundance of trusted parties capable of issuing certificates for
any domain of their choice. DANE leverages the DNSSEC infrastructure
to publish public keys and certificates for use with the Transport
Layer Security (TLS) [RFC5246] protocol via the "TLSA" DNS record
type. With DNSSEC, each domain can only vouch for the keys of its
The TLS protocol enables secure TCP communication. In the context of
this memo, channel security is assumed to be provided by TLS. Used
without authentication, TLS provides only privacy protection against
eavesdropping attacks. Otherwise, TLS also provides data origin
authentication to guard against MITM attacks.
1.3. SMTP Channel Security
With HTTPS, TLS employs X.509 certificates [RFC5280] issued by one of
the many CAs bundled with popular web browsers to allow users to
authenticate their "secure" websites. Before we specify a new DANE
TLS security model for SMTP, we will explain why a new security model
is needed. In the process, we will explain why the familiar HTTPS
security model is inadequate to protect inter-domain SMTP traffic.
The subsections below outline four key problems with applying
traditional Web PKI [RFC7435] to SMTP; these problems are addressed
by this specification. Since an SMTP channel security policy is not
explicitly specified in either the recipient address or the MX
record, a new signaling mechanism is required to indicate when
channel security is possible and should be used. The publication of
TLSA records allows server operators to securely signal to SMTP
clients that TLS is available and should be used. DANE TLSA makes it
possible to simultaneously discover which destination domains support
secure delivery via TLS and how to verify the authenticity of the
associated SMTP services, providing a path forward to ubiquitous SMTP
1.3.1. STARTTLS Downgrade Attack
SMTP [RFC5321] is a single-hop protocol in a multi-hop store-and-
forward email delivery process. An SMTP envelope recipient address
does not correspond to a specific transport-layer endpoint address;
rather, at each relay hop, the transport-layer endpoint is the
next-hop relay, while the envelope recipient address typically
remains the same. Unlike HTTP and its corresponding secured version,
HTTPS, where the use of TLS is signaled via the URI scheme, email
recipient addresses do not directly signal transport security policy.
Indeed, no such signaling could work well with SMTP, since TLS
encryption of SMTP protects email traffic on a hop-by-hop basis while
email addresses could only express end-to-end policy.
With no mechanism available to signal transport security policy, SMTP
relays employ a best-effort "opportunistic" security model for TLS.
A single SMTP server TCP listening endpoint can serve both TLS and
non-TLS clients; the use of TLS is negotiated via the SMTP STARTTLS
command [RFC3207]. The server signals TLS support to the client over
a cleartext SMTP connection, and, if the client also supports TLS, it
may negotiate a TLS-encrypted channel to use for email transmission.
The server's indication of TLS support can be easily suppressed by an
MITM attacker. Thus, pre-DANE SMTP TLS security can be subverted by
simply downgrading a connection to cleartext. No TLS security
feature can prevent this. The attacker can simply disable TLS.
1.3.2. Insecure Server Name without DNSSEC
With SMTP, DNS MX records abstract the next-hop transport endpoint
and allow administrators to specify a set of target servers to which
SMTP traffic should be directed for a given domain.
A TLS client is vulnerable to MITM attacks unless it verifies that
the server's certificate binds the public key to a name that matches
one of the client's reference identifiers. A natural choice of
reference identifier is the server's domain name. However, with
SMTP, server names are not directly encoded in the recipient address;
instead, they are obtained indirectly via MX records. Without
DNSSEC, the MX lookup is vulnerable to MITM and DNS cache poisoning
attacks. Active attackers can forge DNS replies with fake MX records
and can redirect email to servers with names of their choice.
Therefore, secure verification of SMTP TLS certificates matching the
server name is not possible without DNSSEC.
One might try to harden TLS for SMTP against DNS attacks by using the
envelope recipient domain as a reference identifier and by requiring
each SMTP server to possess a trusted certificate for the envelope
recipient domain rather than the MX hostname. Unfortunately, this is
impractical, as email for many domains is handled by third parties
that are not in a position to obtain certificates for all the domains
they serve. Deployment of the Server Name Indication (SNI) extension
to TLS (see Section 3 of [RFC6066]) is no panacea, since SNI key
management is operationally challenging except when the email service
provider is also the domain's registrar and its certificate issuer;
this is rarely the case for email.
Since the recipient domain name cannot be used as the SMTP server
reference identifier, and neither can the MX hostname without DNSSEC,
large-scale deployment of authenticated TLS for SMTP requires that
the DNS be secure.
Since SMTP security depends critically on DNSSEC, it is important to
point out that SMTP with DANE is consequently the most conservative
possible trust model. It trusts only what must be trusted and no
more. Adding any other trusted actors to the mix can only reduce
SMTP security. A sender may choose to further harden DNSSEC for
selected high-value receiving domains by configuring explicit trust
anchors for those domains instead of relying on the chain of trust
from the root domain. However, detailed discussion of DNSSEC
security practices is out of scope for this document.
1.3.3. Sender Policy Does Not Scale
Sending systems are in some cases explicitly configured to use TLS
for mail sent to selected peer domains, but this requires configuring
sending MTAs with appropriate subject names or certificate content
digests from their peer domains. Due to the resulting administrative
burden, such statically configured SMTP secure channels are used
rarely (generally only between domains that make bilateral
arrangements with their business partners). Internet email, on the
other hand, requires regularly contacting new domains for which
security configurations cannot be established in advance.
The abstraction of the SMTP transport endpoint via DNS MX records,
often across organizational boundaries, limits the use of public CA
PKI with SMTP to a small set of sender-configured peer domains. With
little opportunity to use TLS authentication, sending MTAs are rarely
configured with a comprehensive list of trusted CAs. SMTP services
that support STARTTLS often deploy X.509 certificates that are
self-signed or issued by a private CA.
1.3.4. Too Many Certification Authorities
Even if it were generally possible to determine a secure server name,
the SMTP client would still need to verify that the server's
certificate chain is issued by a trusted CA (a trust anchor). MTAs
are not interactive applications where a human operator can make a
decision (wisely or otherwise) to selectively disable TLS security
policy when certificate chain verification fails. With no user to
"click OK", the MTA's list of public CA trust anchors would need to
be comprehensive in order to avoid bouncing mail addressed to sites
that employ unknown CAs.
On the other hand, each trusted CA can issue certificates for any
domain. If even one of the configured CAs is compromised or operated
by an adversary, it can subvert TLS security for all destinations.
Any set of CAs is simultaneously both overly inclusive and not
2. Identifying Applicable TLSA Records
2.1. DNS Considerations
2.1.1. DNS Errors, "Bogus" Responses, and "Indeterminate" Responses
An SMTP client that implements opportunistic DANE TLS per this
specification depends critically on the integrity of DNSSEC lookups,
as discussed in Section 1.3.2. This section lists the DNS resolver
requirements needed to avoid downgrade attacks when using
opportunistic DANE TLS.
A DNS lookup may signal an error or return a definitive answer. A
security-aware resolver MUST be used for this specification.
Security-aware resolvers will indicate the security status of a DNS
RRset with one of four possible values defined in Section 4.3 of
[RFC4035]: "secure", "insecure", "bogus", and "indeterminate". In
[RFC4035], the meaning of the "indeterminate" security status is:
An RRset for which the resolver is not able to determine whether
the RRset should be signed, as the resolver is not able to obtain
the necessary DNSSEC RRs. This can occur when the security-aware
resolver is not able to contact security-aware name servers for
the relevant zones.
Note that the "indeterminate" security status has a conflicting
definition in Section 5 of [RFC4033]:
There is no trust anchor that would indicate that a specific
portion of the tree is secure.
In this document, the term "indeterminate" will be used exclusively
in the [RFC4035] sense. Therefore, obtaining "indeterminate" lookup
results is a (transient) failure condition, namely, the inability to
locate the relevant DNS records. DNS records that would be
classified "indeterminate" in the sense of [RFC4035] are simply
classified as "insecure".
We do not need to distinguish between zones that lack a suitable
ancestor trust anchor, and delegations (ultimately) from a trust
anchor that designate a child zone as being "insecure". All
"insecure" RRsets MUST be handled identically: in either case,
non-validated data for the query domain is all that is and can be
available, and authentication using the data is impossible. As the
DNS root zone has been signed, we expect that validating resolvers
used by Internet-facing MTAs will be configured with trust anchor
data for the root zone and that therefore domains with no ancestor
trust anchor will not be possible in most deployments.
As noted in Section 4.3 of [RFC4035], a security-aware DNS resolver
MUST be able to determine whether a given non-error DNS response is
"secure", "insecure", "bogus", or "indeterminate". It is expected
that most security-aware stub resolvers will not signal an
"indeterminate" security status (in the sense of [RFC4035]) to the
application and will instead signal a "bogus" or error result. If a
resolver does signal an [RFC4035] "indeterminate" security status,
this MUST be treated by the SMTP client as though a "bogus" or error
result had been returned.
An MTA using a non-validating security-aware stub resolver MAY use
the stub resolver's ability, if available, to signal DNSSEC
validation status based on information the stub resolver has learned
from an upstream validating recursive resolver. Security-oblivious
stub resolvers [RFC4033] MUST NOT be used. In accordance with
Section 4.9.3 of [RFC4035]:
... a security-aware stub resolver MUST NOT place any reliance on
signature validation allegedly performed on its behalf, except
when the security-aware stub resolver obtained the data in
question from a trusted security-aware recursive name server via a
To avoid much repetition in the text below, we will pause to explain
the handling of "bogus" or "indeterminate" DNSSEC query responses.
These are not necessarily the result of a malicious actor; they can,
for example, occur when network packets are corrupted or lost in
transit. Therefore, "bogus" or "indeterminate" replies are equated
in this memo with lookup failure.
There is an important non-failure condition we need to highlight in
addition to the obvious case of the DNS client obtaining a non-empty
"secure" or "insecure" RRset of the requested type. Namely, it is
not an error when either "secure" or "insecure" nonexistence is
determined for the requested data. When a DNSSEC response with a
validation status that is either "secure" or "insecure" reports
either no records of the requested type or nonexistence of the query
domain, the response is not a DNS error condition. The DNS client
has not been left without an answer; it has learned that records of
the requested type do not exist.
Security-aware stub resolvers will, of course, also signal DNS lookup
errors in other cases, for example, when processing a "SERVFAIL"
[RFC2136] response code (RCODE) [RFC1035], which will not have an
associated DNSSEC status. All lookup errors are treated the same way
by this specification, regardless of whether they are from a "bogus"
or "indeterminate" DNSSEC status or from a more generic DNS error:
the information that was requested cannot be obtained by the
security-aware resolver at this time. Thus, a lookup error is either
a failure to obtain the relevant RRset if it exists or a failure to
determine that no such RRset exists when it does not.
In contrast to a "bogus" response or an "indeterminate" response, an
"insecure" DNSSEC response is not an error; rather, as explained
above, it indicates that the target DNS zone is either delegated as
an "insecure" child of a "secure" parent zone or not a descendant of
any of the configured DNSSEC trust anchors in use by the SMTP client.
"Insecure" results will leave the SMTP client with degraded channel
security but do not stand in the way of message delivery. See
Section 2.2 for further details.
2.1.2. DNS Error Handling
When a DNS lookup failure (an error, "bogus", or "indeterminate", as
defined above) prevents an SMTP client from determining which SMTP
server or servers it should connect to, message delivery MUST be
delayed. This naturally includes, for example, the case when a
"bogus" or "indeterminate" response is encountered during MX
resolution. When multiple MX hostnames are obtained from a
successful MX lookup but a later DNS lookup failure prevents network
address resolution for a given MX hostname, delivery may proceed via
any remaining MX hosts.
When a particular SMTP server is securely identified as the delivery
destination, a set of DNS lookups (Section 2.2) MUST be performed to
locate any related TLSA records. If any DNS queries used to locate
TLSA records fail (due to "bogus" or "indeterminate" records,
timeouts, malformed replies, SERVFAIL responses, etc.), then the SMTP
client MUST treat that server as unreachable and MUST NOT deliver the
message via that server. If no servers are reachable, delivery is
In the text that follows, we will only describe what happens when all
relevant DNS queries succeed. If any DNS failure occurs, the SMTP
client MUST behave as described in this section, by "skipping" the
SMTP server or destination that is problematic. Queries for
candidate TLSA records are explicitly part of "all relevant DNS
queries", and SMTP clients MUST NOT continue to connect to an SMTP
server or destination whose TLSA record lookup fails.
2.1.3. Stub Resolver Considerations
A note about DNAME aliases: a query for a domain name whose ancestor
domain is a DNAME alias returns the DNAME RR for the ancestor domain
along with a CNAME that maps the query domain to the corresponding
sub-domain of the target domain of the DNAME alias [RFC6672].
Therefore, whenever we speak of CNAME aliases, we implicitly allow
for the possibility that the alias in question is the result of an
ancestor domain DNAME record. Consequently, no explicit support for
DNAME records is needed in SMTP software; it is sufficient to process
the resulting CNAME aliases. DNAME records only require special
processing in the validating stub resolver library that checks the
integrity of the combined DNAME + CNAME reply. When DNSSEC
validation is handled by a local caching resolver rather than the MTA
itself, even that part of the DNAME support logic is outside the MTA.
When a stub resolver returns a response containing a CNAME alias that
does not also contain the corresponding query results for the target
of the alias, the SMTP client will need to repeat the query at the
target of the alias and should do so recursively up to some
configured or implementation-dependent recursion limit. If at any
stage of CNAME expansion an error is detected, the lookup of the
original requested records MUST be considered to have failed.
Whether a chain of CNAME records was returned in a single stub
resolver response or via explicit recursion by the SMTP client, if at
any stage of recursive expansion an "insecure" CNAME record is
encountered, then it and all subsequent results (in particular, the
final result) MUST be considered "insecure", regardless of whether or
not any earlier CNAME records leading to the "insecure" record were
Note that a security-aware non-validating stub resolver may return to
the SMTP client an "insecure" reply received from a validating
recursive resolver that contains a CNAME record along with additional
answers recursively obtained starting at the target of the CNAME. In
this case, the only possible conclusion is that some record in the
set of records returned is "insecure", and it is, in fact, possible
that the initial CNAME record and a subset of the subsequent records
If the SMTP client needs to determine the security status of the DNS
zone containing the initial CNAME record, it will need to issue a
separate query of type "CNAME" that returns only the initial CNAME
record. Specifically, as discussed in Section 2.2.2, when "insecure"
A or AAAA records are found for an SMTP server via a CNAME alias, the
SMTP client will need to perform an additional CNAME query in order
to determine whether or not the DNS zone in which the alias is
published is DNSSEC signed.
2.2. TLS Discovery
As noted previously (in Section 1.3.1), opportunistic TLS with SMTP
servers that advertise TLS support via STARTTLS is subject to an MITM
downgrade attack. Also, some SMTP servers that are not, in fact, TLS
capable erroneously advertise STARTTLS by default, and clients need
to be prepared to retry cleartext delivery after STARTTLS fails. In
contrast, DNSSEC-validated TLSA records MUST NOT be published for
servers that do not support TLS. Clients can safely interpret their
presence as a commitment by the server operator to implement TLS and
This memo defines four actions to be taken after the search for a
TLSA record returns "secure" usable results, "secure" unusable
results, "insecure" or no results, or an error signal. The term
"usable" in this context is in the sense of Section 4.1 of [RFC6698].
Specifically, if the DNS lookup for a TLSA record returns:
A "secure" TLSA RRset with at least one usable record: Any
connection to the MTA MUST employ TLS encryption and MUST
authenticate the SMTP server using the techniques discussed in the
rest of this document. Failure to establish an authenticated TLS
connection MUST result in falling back to the next SMTP server or
A "secure" non-empty TLSA RRset where all the records are unusable:
Any connection to the MTA MUST be made via TLS, but authentication
is not required. Failure to establish an encrypted TLS connection
MUST result in falling back to the next SMTP server or delayed
An "insecure" TLSA RRset or DNSSEC-authenticated denial of existence
of the TLSA records:
A connection to the MTA SHOULD be made using (pre-DANE)
opportunistic TLS; this includes using cleartext delivery when the
remote SMTP server does not appear to support TLS. The MTA MAY
retry in cleartext when delivery via TLS fails during the
handshake or even during data transfer.
Any lookup error: Lookup errors, including "bogus" and
"indeterminate" as explained in Section 2.1.1, MUST result in
falling back to the next SMTP server or delayed delivery.
An SMTP client MAY be configured to mandate DANE-verified delivery
for some destinations. With mandatory DANE TLS (Section 6), delivery
proceeds only when "secure" TLSA records are used to establish an
encrypted and authenticated TLS channel with the SMTP server.
When the original next-hop destination is an address literal rather
than a DNS domain, DANE TLS does not apply. Delivery proceeds using
any relevant security policy configured by the MTA administrator.
Similarly, when an MX RRset incorrectly lists a network address in
lieu of an MX hostname, if an MTA chooses to connect to the network
address in the nonconformant MX record, DANE TLSA does not apply for
such a connection.
In the subsections that follow, we explain how to locate the SMTP
servers and the associated TLSA records for a given next-hop
destination domain. We also explain which name or names are to be
used in identity checks of the SMTP server certificate.
2.2.1. MX Resolution
In this section, we consider next-hop domains that are subject to MX
resolution and have MX records. The TLSA records and the associated
base domain are derived separately for each MX hostname that is used
to attempt message delivery. DANE TLS can authenticate message
delivery to the intended next-hop domain only when the MX records are
obtained securely via a DNSSEC-validated lookup.
MX records MUST be sorted by preference; an MX hostname with a worse
(numerically higher) MX preference that has TLSA records MUST NOT
preempt an MX hostname with a better (numerically lower) preference
that has no TLSA records. In other words, prevention of delivery
loops by obeying MX preferences MUST take precedence over channel
security considerations. Even with two equal-preference MX records,
an MTA is not obligated to choose the MX hostname that offers more
security. Domains that want secure inbound mail delivery need to
ensure that all their SMTP servers and MX records are configured
In the language of [RFC5321], Section 5.1, the original next-hop
domain is the "initial name". If the MX lookup of the initial name
results in a CNAME alias, the MTA replaces the initial name with the
resulting name and performs a new lookup with the new name. MTAs
typically support recursion in CNAME expansion, so this replacement
is performed repeatedly (up to the MTA's recursion limit) until the
ultimate non-CNAME domain is found.
If the MX RRset (or any CNAME leading to it) is "insecure" (see
Section 2.1.1) and DANE TLS for the given destination is mandatory
(Section 6), delivery MUST be delayed. If the MX RRset is "insecure"
and DANE TLS is not mandatory, the SMTP client is free to use
pre-DANE opportunistic TLS (possibly even cleartext).
Since the protocol in this memo is an Opportunistic Security protocol
[RFC7435], the SMTP client MAY elect to use DANE TLS (as described in
Section 2.2.2 below), even with MX hosts obtained via an "insecure"
MX RRset. For example, when a hosting provider has a signed DNS zone
and publishes TLSA records for its SMTP servers, hosted domains that
are not signed may still benefit from the provider's TLSA records.
Deliveries via the provider's SMTP servers will not be subject to
active attacks when sending SMTP clients elect to use the provider's
TLSA records (active attacks that tamper with the "insecure" MX RRset
are of course still possible in this case).
When the MX records are not (DNSSEC) signed, an active attacker can
redirect SMTP clients to MX hosts of his choice. Such redirection is
tamper-evident when SMTP servers found via "insecure" MX records are
recorded as the next-hop relay in the MTA delivery logs in their
original (rather than CNAME-expanded) form. Sending MTAs SHOULD log
unexpanded MX hostnames when these result from "insecure" MX lookups.
Any successful authentication via an insecurely determined MX host
MUST NOT be misrepresented in the mail logs as secure delivery to the
intended next-hop domain.
In the absence of DNS lookup errors (Section 2.1.1), if the MX RRset
is not "insecure", then it is "secure", and the SMTP client MUST
treat each MX hostname as described in Section 2.2.2. When, for a
given MX hostname, no TLSA records are found or only "insecure" TLSA
records are found, DANE TLSA is not applicable with the SMTP server
in question, and delivery proceeds to that host as with pre-DANE
opportunistic TLS. To avoid downgrade attacks, any errors during
TLSA lookups MUST, as explained in Section 2.1.2, cause the SMTP
server in question to be treated as unreachable.
2.2.2. Non-MX Destinations
This section describes the algorithm used to locate the TLSA records
and associated TLSA base domain for an input domain that is not
subject to MX resolution, that represents a hostname from a "secure"
MX RRset, or that lacks MX records. Such domains include:
o Any host that is configured by the sending MTA administrator as
the next-hop relay for some or all domains and that is not subject
to MX resolution.
o A domain that has MX records. When a domain has MX records, we
treat each MX host listed in those MX records as though it were a
non-MX destination -- that is, in the same way as we would treat
an administrator-configured relay that handles mail for that
domain. (Unlike administrator-specified relays, MTAs are not
required to support CNAME expansion of next-hop names found via MX
o A next-hop destination domain subject to MX resolution that has no
MX records. In this case, the domain's name is implicitly also
its sole SMTP server name.
Note that DNS queries with type TLSA are mishandled by load-balancing
nameservers that serve the MX hostnames of some large email
providers. The DNS zones served by these nameservers are not signed
and contain no TLSA records. These nameservers SHOULD provide
"insecure" negative replies that indicate the nonexistence of the
TLSA records, but instead they fail by not responding at all or by
responding with a DNS RCODE [RFC1035] other than NXDOMAIN, e.g.,
SERVFAIL or NOTIMP [RFC2136].
To avoid problems delivering mail to domains whose SMTP servers are
served by these problematic nameservers, the SMTP client MUST perform
any A and/or AAAA queries for the destination before attempting to
locate the associated TLSA records. This lookup is needed in any
case to determine (1) whether or not the destination domain is
reachable and (2) the DNSSEC validation status of the chain of CNAME
queries required to reach the ultimate address records.
If no address records are found, the destination is unreachable. If
address records are found but the DNSSEC validation status of the
first query response is "insecure" (see Section 2.1.3), the SMTP
client SHOULD NOT proceed to search for any associated TLSA records.
In the case of these problematic domains, TLSA queries would lead to
DNS lookup errors and would cause messages to be consistently delayed
and ultimately returned to the sender. We don't expect to find any
"secure" TLSA records associated with a TLSA base domain that lies in
an unsigned DNS zone. Therefore, skipping TLSA lookups in this case
will also reduce latency, with no detrimental impact on security.
If the A and/or AAAA lookup of the initial name yields a CNAME, we
replace it with the resulting name as if it were the initial name and
perform a lookup again using the new name. This replacement is
performed recursively (up to the MTA's recursion limit).
We consider the following cases for handling a DNS response for an
A or AAAA DNS lookup:
Not found: When the DNS queries for A and/or AAAA records yield
neither a list of addresses nor a CNAME (or CNAME expansion is not
supported), the destination is unreachable.
Non-CNAME: The answer is not a CNAME alias. If the address RRset is
"secure", TLSA lookups are performed as described in Section 2.2.3
with the initial name as the candidate TLSA base domain. If no
"secure" TLSA records are found, DANE TLS is not applicable and
mail delivery proceeds with pre-DANE opportunistic TLS (which,
being best-effort, degrades to cleartext delivery when STARTTLS is
not available or the TLS handshake fails).
Insecure CNAME: The input domain is a CNAME alias, but the ultimate
network address RRset is "insecure" (see Section 2.1.1). If the
initial CNAME response is also "insecure", DANE TLS does not
apply. Otherwise, this case is treated just like the non-CNAME
case above, where a search is performed for a TLSA record with the
original input domain as the candidate TLSA base domain.
Secure CNAME: The input domain is a CNAME alias, and the ultimate
network address RRset is "secure" (see Section 2.1.1). Two
candidate TLSA base domains are tried: the fully CNAME-expanded
initial name and, failing that, the initial name itself.
In summary, if it is possible to securely obtain the full,
CNAME-expanded, DNSSEC-validated address records for the input
domain, then that name is the preferred TLSA base domain. Otherwise,
the unexpanded input domain is the candidate TLSA base domain. When
no "secure" TLSA records are found at either the CNAME-expanded or
unexpanded domain, then DANE TLS does not apply for mail delivery via
the input domain in question. And, as always, errors, "bogus"
results, or "indeterminate" results for any query in the process MUST
result in delaying or abandoning delivery.
2.2.3. TLSA Record Lookup
When the SMTP server's hostname is not a CNAME or DNAME alias, the
list of associated candidate TLSA base domains (see below) consists
of just the server hostname.
When the hostname is an alias with a "secure" (at every stage) full
expansion, the list of candidate TLSA base domains (see below) is a
pair of domains: the fully expanded server hostname first, and the
unexpanded server hostname second.
Each candidate TLSA base domain (alias-expanded or original) is in
turn prefixed with service labels of the form "_<port>._tcp". The
resulting domain name is used to issue a DNSSEC query with the query
type set to TLSA ([RFC6698], Section 7.1).
The first of these candidate domains to yield a "secure" TLSA RRset
becomes the actual TLSA base domain.
For SMTP, the destination TCP port is typically 25, but this may be
different with custom routes specified by the MTA administrator, in
which case the SMTP client MUST use the appropriate number in the
"_<port>" prefix in place of "_25". If, for example, the candidate
base domain is "mx.example.com" and the SMTP connection is to port
25, the TLSA RRset is obtained via a DNSSEC query of the form:
_25._tcp.mx.example.com. IN TLSA ?
The query response may be a CNAME or the actual TLSA RRset. If the
response is a CNAME, the SMTP client (through the use of its
security-aware stub resolver) restarts the TLSA query at the target
domain, following CNAMEs as appropriate, and keeps track of whether
or not the entire chain is "secure". If any "insecure" records are
encountered or the TLSA records don't exist, the next candidate TLSA
base domain is tried instead.
If the ultimate response is a "secure" TLSA RRset, then the candidate
TLSA base domain will be the actual TLSA base domain, and the TLSA
RRset will constitute the TLSA records for the destination. If none
of the candidate TLSA base domains yield "secure" TLSA records, then
the SMTP client is free to use pre-DANE opportunistic TLS (possibly
TLSA record publishers may leverage CNAMEs to reference a single
authoritative TLSA RRset specifying a common CA or a common
end-entity certificate to be used with multiple TLS services. Such
CNAME expansion does not change the SMTP client's notion of the TLSA
base domain; thus, when _25._tcp.mx.example.com is a CNAME, the base
domain remains mx.example.com, and this is still the reference
identifier used together with the next-hop domain in peer certificate
Note that shared end-entity certificate associations expose the
publishing domain to substitution attacks, where an MITM attacker can
reroute traffic to a different server that shares the same end-entity
certificate. Such shared end-entity TLSA records SHOULD be avoided
unless the servers in question are functionally equivalent or employ
mutually incompatible protocols (an active attacker gains nothing by
diverting client traffic from one such server to another).
A better example, employing a shared trust anchor rather than shared
end-entity certificates, is illustrated by the DNSSEC-validated
example.com. IN MX 0 mx1.example.com.
example.com. IN MX 0 mx2.example.com.
_25._tcp.mx1.example.com. IN CNAME tlsa201._dane.example.com.
_25._tcp.mx2.example.com. IN CNAME tlsa201._dane.example.com.
tlsa201._dane.example.com. IN TLSA 2 0 1 e3b0c44298fc1c149a...
The SMTP servers mx1.example.com and mx2.example.com will be expected
to have certificates issued under a common trust anchor, but each MX
hostname's TLSA base domain remains unchanged despite the above CNAME
records. Correspondingly, each SMTP server will be associated with a
pair of reference identifiers consisting of its hostname plus the
next-hop domain "example.com".
If, during TLSA resolution (including possible CNAME indirection), at
least one "secure" TLSA record is found (even if not usable because
it is unsupported by the implementation or support is
administratively disabled), then the corresponding host has signaled
its commitment to implement TLS. The SMTP client MUST NOT deliver
mail via the corresponding host unless a TLS session is negotiated
via STARTTLS. This is required to avoid MITM STARTTLS downgrade
As noted previously (in Section 2.2.2), when no "secure" TLSA records
are found at the fully CNAME-expanded name, the original unexpanded
name MUST be tried instead. This supports customers of hosting
providers where the provider's zone cannot be validated with DNSSEC
but the customer has shared appropriate key material with the hosting
provider to enable TLS via SNI. Intermediate names that arise during
CNAME expansion that are neither the original name nor the final name
are never candidate TLSA base domains, even if "secure".