Saturday, April 13, 2024

Email Authentication Protocols: SPF, DKIM, and DMARC – A Detailed Guide

Email communication is essential for personal and professional contact in the modern digital environment.

Email is widely used, making it a perfect target for cybercriminals, leading to increased phishing attempts, spam, and email spoofing.

Strong email security measures are becoming essential as these threats become more sophisticated. Email authentication techniques like SPF, DKIM, and DMARC are crucial in situations like this.

By authenticating the sender’s identity and confirming the accuracy of the received messages, these procedures act as the first line of protection against email-based threats.

This article will thoroughly review these three important email authentication methods, including their roles, how they cooperate, and why they are crucial for upholding a reliable and secure email communication infrastructure.

What are Email Authentication Protocols?

Secure email communications can be achieved through Email Authentication Protocols, standards, or technologies that validate the sender’s identity and protect the message’s integrity.

These standards aim to protect users from spam, phishing, and other malicious email-based assaults.

As a bonus, they make it less likely that a good email will be incorrectly deleted as spam or malware.

Here are the primary email authentication protocols commonly in use:

  • Sender Policy Framework (SPF)
  • DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM)
  • Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC)

Sender Policy Framework (SPF)

The Sender Policy Framework (SPF) is an email authentication technology developed to prevent spam.

By letting domain owners choose which mail servers can send emails on their behalf, SPF assists receiving servers in authenticating the sender of incoming messages.

For this purpose, the DNS records of the domain are consulted to ensure that the emails come from the addresses they claim to represent.

The Sender Policy Framework (SPF) aims to improve email security by limiting the possibility that an unauthorized sender may use a specific domain in the “From” address.

This helps keep the sender’s and the recipient’s inboxes free of unwanted messages and strengthens the confidence each party has in email.

You can Analyze and Detect SPF Issues using Trustifi’s SPF Record Checker Tool.

How It Works

  • Domain owners create SPF records showing trusted IP addresses and domains from which emails can be sent.
  • Email servers do a Sender Policy Framework (SPF) record check whenever they receive an email.
  • When a message is received, the server checks the IP address to see if it is one of the approved senders mentioned in the SPF record.
  • The SPF check is successful if the sending IP address is known and accepted; otherwise, the email may be flagged as suspicious and deleted.

How Do Attackers Abuse SPF:

Sender Policy Framework (SPF) is an email authentication system that checks the sender’s name to stop email spoofing and phishing. But, like any other system, SPF isn’t completely safe from possible attack vectors. Here are some possible ways to attack SPF:

Manipulating SPF Records: Attackers could try to change or create SPF records by changing the DNS records of a domain. This would let them list unauthorized IP addresses or servers as valid senders. This can make it possible for tactics like spoofing or phishing to work.

Domain Hijacking: If an attacker takes control of a legal domain, they can change the SPF records to include their own malicious servers. This can cause bad emails that look like they came from a trusted source to be sent.

Subdomain Attacks: SPF records are often set up for an organization’s primary domain, but they might forget to set up SPF records for subdomains. Attackers who send emails from subdomains without the proper SPF records can use this against you.

Inadequate SPF Policies: Organizations may have weak SPF policies that let many IP addresses send emails on their behalf. This can give attackers a bigger pool of possible IP numbers to trick people.

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DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM)

DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) is an email authentication technology that uses encryption to confirm an email’s authenticity.

The sending server adds a distinctive DKIM signature using a private key to each email. The receiving server verifies the signature of the incoming email using a public key obtained from the sender’s DNS records.

If it matches, the email can be trusted as genuine and safe from tampering. DKIM is designed to prevent email spoofing and phishing attacks and guarantee the safe delivery of email communications by verifying the sender’s domain and the message’s encrypted signature.

You can Understand and diagnose Email Issues using Trusitifi’s Email Header Analyzer Tool.

How It Works

  • Using a private key, the email’s computer makes a digital signature.
  • The email packaging has been changed to include this signature.
  • From the DNS records, the email server that receives the email gets the sender’s public key.
  • The digital signature is then decrypted and checked using the public key.
  • The genuine email has not been changed if the signature is correct.

How Do Attackers Abuse DKIM

  1. Private Key Compromise: DKIM relies on a private key stored on the sending server to sign outgoing emails. If an attacker gains access to the private key, they can sign malicious emails that recipients might consider legitimate, as the DKIM signature would appear valid.
  2. DNS Record Manipulation: DKIM public keys are stored in DNS records as text (TXT) records. If an attacker gains control over a domain’s DNS records, they could modify or replace the DKIM public key, allowing them to sign fraudulent emails that appear authentic.
  3. Subdomain Spoofing: Organizations might configure DKIM for their main domain but overlook implementing it for subdomains. Attackers could then send emails from subdomains that lack proper DKIM signing, making it harder for recipients to verify the email’s authenticity.
  4. Key Length and Algorithms: If an organization uses weak encryption algorithms or short key lengths for DKIM signing, it becomes easier for attackers to crack the encryption and forge DKIM signatures.

Solution: Organizations should adopt efficient incident response plans, regularly monitor email traffic for anomalies, and stay updated on emerging threats to stay ahead of the evolving email threat landscape with AI-powered solutions like Trustifi.

Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC)

To improve upon SPF and DKIM, a new email authentication protocol called Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC) was developed.

Domain administrators can instruct receiving mail servers on what to do with messages that do not pass authentication.

Domain owners can direct mail servers to stop accepting spam by adding a DMARC policy record to their DNS settings. Email traffic and any security risks can be better understood using DMARC’s reporting features.

DMARC is designed to strengthen email security by adding an extra layer of verification, decreasing phishing and spoofing, and increasing the credibility and delivery of legitimate communications.

How it Works

  • The receiving server references the DMARC policy if SPF or DKIM authentication fails.
  • The DMARC policy can direct the server to take various actions, such as classifying spam, placing it in quarantine, or outright rejecting it.
  • To improve their email protection measures, domain administrators can use forensic and aggregate data on authentication activity.

DMARC Attack Vector

Aggressive Enforcement: Some organizations may choose to use DMARC with a strategy of “quarantine” or “reject” right from the start. This can work, but if the policy isn’t carefully set, it can also cause valid emails to be blocked.

Reporting Address Spoofing: Attackers could try to change the DMARC reporting address to send reports of failed DMARC checks to sites they control. This could give them a chance to learn more about how the organization’s email system works.

Targeted Spoofing: Attackers could try to pose as people or parts of an organization that haven’t fully set up DMARC. This specific method makes it more likely that their emails will be read.

As with other email-related attacks, attackers could use social engineering to get receivers to ignore DMARC warnings or think a DMARC-failed email is real.

Trustifi employs AI algorithms to detect unauthorized access, compromised accounts, or unusual email activity, alerting users to security risks.

Where are SPF, DKIM, and DMARC Records Stored?

Spf records:

SPF records are TXT (text) records in the DNS. Emails from this domain must be sent from the IP addresses or parts specified in these records.

The recipient’s email server will check the SPF record for the sender’s field in the Domain Name System (DNS) to ensure the email is legitimate.

Example SPF record:

v=spf1 ip4:192.0.2.1 ip6:2001:db8::1 include:example.com all

DKIM Records: 

DKIM records are similarly stored in DNS, although they are TXT entries. These entries store the public key to authenticate the domain’s digital signatures in outgoing emails.

The DKIM record is retrieved from the DNS by the receiving email server, which then uses the public key to verify the signature and ensure the email’s authenticity.

Example DKIM record:

v=DKIM1; k=rsa; p=MIGfMA0GCSqGSIb3DQEBAQUAA4GNADCBiQKBgQDnWLKu6qIH66AjqkMYyq3A5bkD

  sY+T4rQzSXFJWzh7DQoKmmrkRDbCIPRrkRHF/EpTExGDD2P8WOEqdGTfVbRy14

  5k3soVGMItcL1QvWskhNKLQYGJME6XE1WUCmAw29FcYKavqnGQFWFpDBIMVFOFw

  7/TZS0Lj1QIDAQAB

DMARC Records:

DNS also stores DMARC records in the TXT record format. The measures to take if an email fails SPF or DKIM checks are provided in the domain’s DMARC policy, defined by these records.

To keep the domain owner aware of authentication actions, DMARC additionally provides reporting tools.

Example DMARC record:

v=DMARC1; p=quarantine; pct=25; rua=mailto:[email protected]; ruf=mailto:[email protected]

Checking an Email for SPF, DKIM, and DMARC Compliance

It takes multiple procedures and the capacity to query DNS records to ensure an email complies with SPF, DKIM, and DMARC.

Here are the measures taken to ensure that an email adheres to these standards:

Check SPF Compliance:

  • Extract the IP address of the email server that sent the email from the email headers.
  • Retrieve the SPF record from the domain’s DNS that the email claims to be sent from. This is usually found in a TXT record in the domain’s DNS.
  • Check if the sending server’s IP address is listed in the SPF record. If it is, the email passes the SPF check; otherwise, it fails.

Check DKIM Compliance:

  • Check the email headers for a DKIM signature. This will usually be found in a header field called ‘DKIM-Signature’.
  • Extract the ‘d=’ parameter from the DKIM signature to find the signing domain and the ‘s=’ parameter to find the selector.
  • Retrieve the DKIM public key from the DNS of the signing domain. This will be found in a TXT record at selector>._domainkey.signing domain>’.
  • Use the public key to verify the DKIM signature in the email header. If the signature is valid, the email passes the DKIM check; otherwise, it fails.

Check DMARC Compliance:

  • Ensure that the email has passed both the SPF and DKIM checks. At least one of them must pass for the DMARC check to pass.
  • Retrieve the DMARC record from the domain’s DNS from which the email claims to be sent. This is usually found in a TXT record at ‘ _dmarc.domain>’.
  • Check if the ‘From’ address domain matches the SPF domain or the DKIM signing domain. If it does, then the email passes the DMARC alignment check.
  • Follow the policy specified in the DMARC record for handling emails that fail the DMARC check.

How to configure SPF, DKIM, and DMARC for a domain

Configure SPF:

  • Identify Authorized IP addresses or servers: Determine the IP addresses or servers authorized to send email on behalf of your domain.
  • Create an SPF Record: Create an SPF record by creating a TXT record in your domain’s DNS settings. The value of this TXT record will start with ‘v=spf1’ followed by the authorized IP addresses or servers.
Example SPF Record: 'v=spf1 ip4:192.168.0.1 -all'

This example authorizes the IP address ‘192.168.0.1’ to send emails on behalf of your domain and denies all others.

  • Update DNS Settings: Add the SPF record to your domain’s DNS settings.

Configure DKIM:

  • Generate a DKIM Key Pair: Generate a public-private key pair for DKIM. Your email server will use the private key to sign outgoing emails, and your domain’s DNS settings will make the public key available.
  • Configure Email Server: Configure your email server to sign outgoing emails using the private DKIM key.
  • Create a DKIM Record: Create a DKIM record by creating a TXT record in your domain’s DNS settings.
  • The name of this TXT record will be in the format selector>._domainkey.yourdomain>’, and the value will contain your DKIM public key.
Example DKIM Record: 'v=DKIM1; k=rsa; p=MIGfMA0...'

This example specifies that the key type is RSA and includes the public key.

  • Update DNS Settings: Add the DKIM record to your domain’s DNS settings.

Configure DMARC:

  • Create a DMARC Record: Create a DMARC record by creating a TXT record in your domain’s DNS settings. The name of this TXT record will be ‘_dmarc.your domain>’, and the value will contain your DMARC policy.
Example DMARC Record: 'v=DMARC1; p=reject; rua=mailto:[email protected]'

This example specifies that emails that fail the DMARC check should be rejected and that reports should be sent to[email protected]’.

  • Update DNS Settings: Add the DMARC record to your domain’s DNS settings.

Conclusion

The SPF, DKIM, and DMARC standards are essential components of a reliable email security architecture in an age when email is vulnerable to a wide range of attacks.

Though each has advantages and disadvantages, they provide an enormous defense against a significant fraction of email-based attacks.

By implementing these authentication processes, your email systems’ security will improve, and your emails’ deliverability will also be enhanced, reducing the possibility that your legitimate messages will be miscategorized as spam.

Applying these standards to your digital communication infrastructure can significantly improve the safety and dependability of your communications.

Implementing AI-powered email security solutions can secure your business from today’s most dangerous email threats, such as Email Tracking, Blocking, Modifying, Phishing, Account takeover, Business Email Compromise, Malware and ransomware – Request Free Demo.

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