NSEC3: Is the glass half full or half empty?

NSEC3, or the "Hashed Authenticated Denial of Existence", is a DNSSEC specification to authenticate the NXDOMAIN response in DNS. To understand how we came to create it, and the secrecy issues around it, we have to understand why it was designed. As the industry moves to a rollout of DNSSEC, understanding the security goals of our various Designed Users helps us understand how we might improve on the security in the protocol through our own implementations.

About the Domain Name Service (DNS)

DNS is the protocol which converts mostly readable hostnames, like, into IP addresses (like At its heart, a client (your desktop) is asking a server to provide that conversion. There are a lot of possible positive answers, which hopefully result in your computer finding its destination. But there are also some negative answers. The interesting answer here is the NXDOMAIN response, which tells your client that the hostnames does not exist.

Secrecy in DNS

DNS requests and replies, by design, have no confidentiality: anyone can see any request and response. Further, there is no client authentication: if an answer is available to one client, it is available to all clients. The contents of a zone file (the list of host names in a domain) are rarely publicized, but a DNS server acts as a public oracle for the zone file; anyone can make continuous requests for hostnames until they reverse engineer the contents of the zone file. With one caveat: the attacker will never know that they are done, as there might exist hostname that they have not yet tried.

But that hasn't kept people from putting information that has some form of borderline secrecy into a zone file. Naming conventions in zone files might permit someone to easily map an intranet just looking at the hostnames. Host names might contain names of individuals. So there is a desire to at least keep the zone files from being trivially readable.

DNSSEC and authenticated denials

DNSSEC adds in one bit of security: the response from the server to the client is signed. Since a zone file is (usually) finite, this signing can take place offline: you sign the contents of the zone file whenever you modify them, and then hand out static results. Negative answers are harder: you can't presign them all, and signing is expensive enough that letting an adversary make you do arbitrary signings can lead to DoS attacks. And you have to authenticate denials, or an adversary could poison lookups with long-lived denials.

Along came NSEC. NSEC permitted a denial response to cover an entire range (e.g., there are no hosts between and Unfortunately, this made it trivial to gather the contents of a zone: after you get one range, simply ask for the next alphabetical host ( and learn what the next actual host is ( From a pre-computation standpoint, NSEC was great - there are the same number of NSEC signed responses in a zone as all other signatures - but from a secrecy standpoint, NSEC destroyed what little obscurity existed in DNS.


NSEC3 is the update to NSEC. Instead of providing a range in which there are no hostnames, a DNS server publishes a hashing function, and a signed range in which there are no valid hashes.. This prevents an adversary from easily collecting the contents of the zone (as with NSEC), but does allow them to gather the size of the zone file (by making queries to find all of the unused hash ranges), and then conduct offline guessing at the contents of the zone files (as Dan Bernstein has been doing for a while). Enabling offline guessing makes a significant difference: with traditional DNS, an adversary must send an arbitrarily large number of queries (guesses) to a name server (making them possibly detectable); with NSEC, they must send as many queries as there are records; and with NSEC3, they must also send the same number of requests as there are records (with some computation to make the right guesses), and then can conduct all of their guessing offline.

While NSEC3 is an improvement from NSEC, it still represents a small step down in zone file secrecy. This step is necessary from a defensive perspective, but it makes one wonder if this is the best solution: why do we still have the concept of semi-secret public DNS names? If we have a zone file we want to keep secret, we should authenticate requests before answering. But until then, at least we can make it harder for an adversary to determine the contents of a public zone.

"Best" practices in zone secrecy

If you have a zone whose contents you want to keep obscure anyway, you should consider:
  • Limiting access to the zone, likely by IP address.
  • Use randomly generated record names, to make offline attacks such as Dan Bernstein's more difficult.
  • Fill your zone with spurious answers, to send adversaries on wild goose chases.
  • Instrument your IDS system to detect people trying to walk your zone file, and give them a different answer set than you give to legitimate users.

Jason Bau and John Mitchell, both of Stanford, have an even deeper dive into DNSSEC and NSEC3.