DKIM replay attacks


Replay attacks on DKIM signed messages
When you receive an email validly signed with DKIM by that might not mean that sent the email to you, or that they even sent this email at all.
What it does tell you is that at some point in the past, signed an email with exactly the same headers and body and sent it to someone. That’s often close enough to the same thing. But if that original recipient were to resend the email to you completely unchanged then the DKIM signature would still validate when you received it. That’s not a bug; it’s one of the design features of DKIM that it typically survives mail forwarding.
That original recipient could also forward the exact same email to a million of their closest friends, and the DKIM signature would validate at each of those million recipients ISPs. This is one form of a replay attack, and it isn’t something DKIM prevents.
DKIM doesn’t prevent replay, but does mitigate it
Completely eliminating replay attacks over SMTP is difficult – it’s inherently a store-and-forward protocol, so there’s no way to have the sender and recipient do any sort of handshake to ensure that a particular signature is only used once. It’s not unheard of for email to be delayed for days, and delays of hours aren’t unusual, so allowing a signature to be valid for only a few seconds after it’s sent won’t work. And the design requirement that DKIM signature survive forwarding means that it has to survive the final recipient’s email address not being the same as the email address the mail was originally sent to so you can’t include the envelope recipient in the signature.
So what does DKIM do to mitigate replay attacks? The answer to that is surprising – almost everything DKIM does is there to mitigate them. The DKIM signature depends on the body of the message, the subject line and the content of any other headers the sender chooses to include; changing any of that will invalidate the signature. That means that while anyone can grab a copy of an email sent by, for example, paypal and forward it on to someone else, if they modify the content at all it will no longer have paypal’s signature. So an attacker can’t just grab someone else’s signed email and replace it with modified content – and if they can’t do that, where’s the benefit to a spammer or phisher to replay a message?
But all that work is for naught if you allow the attacker to choose the content before you sign the message. There are several ways an attacker can do that, but one example that’s particularly relevant today is ESP trial accounts.
I’m stealing your reputation
If you allow anonymous signups for trial accounts that let a potential customer try out your system you’ll want to put very tight limits on how it can be used, so as to avoid spammers signing up and spamming through your servers. Maybe you’ll limit the number of email addresses the trial user can upload, or the number of emails they can send. At the most extreme you might even limit the trial account to sending mail solely to the trial users own (confirmed) email address.
But if an attacker can send even one piece of email they create through your trial account to themselves, and you sign that email, they can take it and send it to a million recipients – and it’ll still have your DKIM signature on it so it’ll use your reputation to avoid filters and end up in the recipients inbox. And then the recipients will report it as spam, and all that spam will be counted against the reputation associated with your DKIM identifier. If you share a DKIM identifier (“d=”) across all your customers that could cause all your customer mail to start being rejected or sent to the spam folder. (Even if you don’t it could still affect your delivery negatively, as spam filtering systems – both automated and human – sometimes aren’t entirely rational or predictable).
Spam that’s sent like this will be a little “off”, compared to legitimate email – the To: field won’t have the email address of the recipient, for instance, and there’ll be no personalization in the Subject or body of the message. It’s no worse than most spam, and it’s more than balanced out by being able to hijack someone else’s reputation.
So if you provide any way for unvetted non-customers to send email through your systems you should consider adding some DKIM limitations to the constraints you already have on that mail path. Not signing with DKIM at all avoids the problem altogether, but also means you can’t demonstrate your DKIM prowess to legitimate potential customers. You might want to sign with a DKIM d= domain that’s different to your production signatures, perhaps even a completely different top level domain to avoid any risk of confusion (but don’t try and hide that it’s your domain – that’s what spammers do).
Other operational mistakes
There are some grubby corners of the email and DKIM specs that sometimes interact to cause other holes that this sort of reputation hijacker can exploit. I’ll talk about header duplication tomorrow.

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  • Hi Steve,
    thank you for interesting point about hijacking DKIM signature. I would add one more thing – the “l” argument that defines the length of signed part of the body. When ESP uses only a fraction of signed body, you can possibly hack it and change only the unsigned part of the body.
    Pavel Pola

  • Ok, now the ARC protocol has been implemented to deal with forwarding, it seems to me that the DKIM protocol needs to be changed to explicitly *forbid* forwarding.
    It is ridiculous that someone can sign up with an ESP, send themself 1 email, get is signed by the DKIM signature of the ESP, and then happily go and forward that same email to millions of recipients, and the ESP has to take full responsibility for those emails.
    The ESP can put in place as many prevention mechanisms as possible, but they are all easy to get around.

By steve

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