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Proof of Non-Existence (NSEC and NSEC3)

How do you prove that something does not exist? This zen-like question is an interesting one, and in this section we will provide an overview of how DNSSEC solves the problem.

Why is it even important to have authenticated denial of existence? Couldn't we just send back a "hey, what you asked for does not exist", and somehow generate a digital signature to go with it, proving it really is from the correct authoritative source? Well, the technical challenge of signing nothing aside, this solution has flaws, one of which is it gives an attacker a way to create the appearance of denial of service by replaying this message on the network.

We are going to use a little story, and tell it three different times to illustrate how proof of nonexistence works. In our story, we run a small company with three employees: Alice, Edward, and Susan. We list their names in a phone directory, and we hired a nameless intern to answer our phone calls.

If we followed the approach of giving back the same answer no matter what was asked, when people called and asked for "Bob", our intern would simply answer: "Sorry, that person doesn't work here, and to prove that I am not lying, here's the signature: 'deaf coffee beef'". Now this is a legitimate answer, but since the signature doesn't change, an attacker could record this message, and when the next person called in asking for Susan, she will hear the exact same message: "Sorry, that person doesn't work here, and to prove that I am not lying, here's the signature: 'deaf coffee beef'". And this answer is verifiable, since the magic signature ("deaf coffee beef" ) can be validated [4]. Now the attacker has successfully fooled the caller into thinking that Susan doesn't work at our company, and might even be able to convince all callers that no one works at this company (no names exist).

To solve this problem, two different solutions were created, we will look at the first one, NSEC, next.


The NSEC record is used to prove that something really does not exist, by providing the name before it, and the name after it. Using our tiny company example, this would be analogous to someone calling for Bob over the phone, and our nameless intern answered the phone with: "I'm sorry, that person doesn't work here. The name before that is Alice, and the name after that is Edward". Let's say someone called in again for a non-existent person, Oliver, the answer would be: "I'm sorry, that person doesn't work here. The name before that is Edward, and the name after that is Susan". Another caller asked for Todd, and the answer would be: "I'm sorry, that person doesn't work here. The name before that is Susan, and there's no other name after that".

So we end up with four NSEC records:

example.com.        300	IN	NSEC	alice.example.com.  A RRSIG NSEC
alice.example.com.  300	IN	NSEC	edward.example.com. A RRSIG NSEC
edward.example.com. 300	IN	NSEC	susan.example.com.  A RRSIG NSEC
susan.example.com.  300	IN	NSEC	example.com.        A RRSIG NSEC

What if the attacker tried to use the same replay method described earlier? If someone called for Edward, none of the four answers would fit. If attacker played message #2, "I'm sorry, that person doesn't work here. The name before it is Alice, and the name after it is Edward", it is obviously false, since "Edward" is in the response; same for #3, Edward and Susan. As for #1 and #4, Edward does not fall in range before Alice or after Susan, so the caller can logically deduce that it was an incorrect answer.

In BIND inline signing, your zone data will be automatically sorted on the fly before generating NSEC records, much like how a phone directory is sorted.

The NSEC record allows for a proof of non-existence for record types. If you ask a signed zone for a name that exists but for a record type that doesn't (for that name), the signed NSEC record returned lists all of the record types that do exist for the requested domain name.

NSEC records can also be used to show whether a record was generated as the result of a wildcard expansion or not. The details of this are out of scope for this document, but are described well in RFC 7129.

Unfortunately, the NSEC solution has a few drawbacks, one of which is trivial "zone walking". A curious person can keep calling back, and our nameless, gullible intern will keep divulging information about our employees. Imagine if the caller first asked: "Is Bob there?" and received back the names Alice and Edward. The caller can then call back again: "Is Edward A. there?", and will get back Edward and Susan. Repeat the process enough times, the caller will eventually learn every name in our company phone directory. For many of you, this may not be a problem, since the very idea of DNS is similar to a public phone book: if you don't want a name to be known publicly, don't put it in DNS! Consider using DNS views (split DNS) and only display your sensitive names to a selective audience.

The second drawback of NSEC is a actually increased operational overhead: no opt-out mechanism for insecure child zones, this generally is a problem for parent zone operators dealing with a lot of insecure child zones, such as .com. To learn more about opt-out, please see the section called “NSEC3 Opt-Out”.


NSEC3 adds two additional features that NSEC does not have:

  1. No easy zone enumeration.
  2. Provides a mechanism for child zone to opt out.

Recall, in the section called “NSEC”, we provided a range of names to prove that something really does not exist. But as it turns out, even disclosing these ranges of names becomes a problem: this made it very easy for the curious minded to look at your entire zone. Not only that, unlike a zone transfer, this "zone walking" is more resource intensive. So how do we disclose something, without actually disclosing it?

The answer is actually quite simple, hashing functions, or one-way hashes. Without going into many details, think of it like a magical meat grinder. A juicy piece of ribeye steak goes in one end, and out comes a predictable shape and size of ground meat (hash) with a somewhat unique pattern. No matter how hard you try, you cannot turn the ground meat back into the juicy ribeye steak, that's what we call a one-way hash.

NSEC3 basically runs the names through a one-way hash, before giving it out, so the recipients can verify the non-existence, without any knowledge of the actual names.

So let's tell our little phone receptionist story for the third time, this time with NSEC3. This time, our intern is not given a list of actual names, he is given a list of "hashed" names. So instead of Alice, Edward, and Susan, the list he is given reads like this (hashes shortened for easier reading):

FSK5....  (produced from Edward)
JKMA.... (produced from Susan)
NTQ0.... (produced from Alice)

Then, the phone rings, someone's asking for Bob again. Our intern takes the name Bob through a hash function, and the result is L8J2..., so he tells them on the phone: "I'm sorry, that person doesn't work here. The name before that is JKMA..., and the name after that is NTQ0...". There, we proved Bob doesn't exist, without giving away any names! To put that into proper NSEC3 resource records, they would look like this (again, hashes shortened for display):

FSK5....example.com. 300 IN NSEC3 1 0 10 1234567890ABCDEF  JKMA... A RRSIG
JKMA....example.com. 300 IN NSEC3 1 0 10 1234567890ABCDEF  NTQ0... A RRSIG
NTQ0....example.com. 300 IN NSEC3 1 0 10 1234567890ABCDEF  FSK5... A RRSIG

Hashes and Privacy

Just because we employed one-way hash functions does not mean there's no way for a determined individual to figure out what your zone data is. Someone could still gather all of your NSEC3 records and hashed names, and perform an offline brute-force attack by trying all possible combinations to figure out what the original name is. This would be like if someone really wanted to know how you got the ground meat, he could buy all cuts of meat and ground it up at home using the same model of meat grinder, and compare the output with the meat you gave him. It is expensive and time consuming (especially with real meat), but like everything else in cryptography, if someone has enough resources and time, nothing is truly private forever. If you are concerned about someone performing this type of attack on your zone data, see about adding salt as described in the section called “NSEC3 Salt”.


The above NSEC3 examples used four parameters: 1, 0, 10, and 1234567890ABCDEF. The rndc tool may be used to set the NSEC3 parameters for a zone; for example:

# rndc signing -nsec3param 1 0 10 1234567890abcdef example.com

1 represents the algorithm, 0 represents the opt-out flag, 10 represents the number of iterations, and 1234567890abcedf is the salt. Let's look at how each one can be configured:

  • Algorithm: Not much of a choice here, the only defined value currently is 1 for SHA-1.
  • Opt-out: Set this to 1 if you want to do NSEC3 opt-out, which we will discuss in the section called “NSEC3 Opt-Out”.
  • Iterations: iterations defines the number of additional times to apply the algorithm when generating an NSEC3 hash. More iterations yields more secure results, but consumes more resources for both authoritative servers and validating resolvers. In this regard, we have similar considerations as we've seen in the section called “Key Sizes” of security versus resources.
  • Salt: The salt is a string of data expressed in hexadecimal, or a hyphen ('-') if no salt is to be used. We will learn more about salt in the section called “NSEC3 Salt”.

For example, to create an NSEC3 chain using the SHA-1 hash algorithm, no opt-out flag, 10 iterations, and a salt value of "FFFF", use:

# rndc signing -nsec3param 1 0 10 FFFF example.com

To set the opt-out flag, 15 iterations, and no salt, use:

# rndc signing -nsec3param 1 1 15 - example.com

NSEC3 Opt-Out

One of the advantages of NSEC3 over NSEC is the ability for parent zones to publish less information about its child or delegated zones. Why would you ever want to do that? Well, if a significant number of your delegations are not yet DNSSEC-aware, meaning they are still insecure or unsigned, generating DNSSEC-records for their NS and glue records is not a good use of your precious name server resources.

The resources may not seem like a lot, but imagine in if you are the operator of busy top level domains such as .com or .net, with millions and millions of insecure delegated domain names, it quickly adds up. As of late 2016, less than 0.5% of all .com zones are signed. Basically, without opt-out, if you have 1,000,000 delegations, only 5 of which are secure, you still have to generate NSEC RRset for the other 999,995 delegations; with NSEC3 opt-out, you will have saved yourself 999.995 sets of records.

For most DNS administrators who do not manage a large number of delegations, the decision whether or not to use NSEC3 opt-out is probably not relevant.

To learn more about how to configure NSEC3 opt-out, please see the section called “NSEC3 Optout Recipe”.

NSEC3 Salt

As described in the section called “NSEC3”, while NSEC3 doesn't put your zone data in plain public display, it is still not difficult for an attacker to collect all the hashed names, and perform an offline attack. All that is required is running through all the combinations to construct a database of plaintext names to hashed names, also known as a "rainbow table".

There is one more features NSEC3 gives us to provide additional protection: salt. Basically, salt gives us the ability introduce further randomness into the hashed results. Whenever the salt is changed, any pre-computed rainbow table is rendered useless, and a new rainbow table must be re-computed. If the salt is changed from time to time, it becomes difficult to construct a useful rainbow table, thus difficult to walk the DNS zone data programmatically. How often you want to change your NSEC3 salt is up to you.

To learn more about what steps to take to change NSEC3, please see the section called “Changing NSEC3 Salt Recipe”.


So which one should you choose? NSEC or NSEC3? There is not really a single right answer here that fits everyone. It all comes down to your needs or requirements.

If you prefer not to make your zone easily enumerable, implementing NSEC3 paired with a periodically changed salt will provide a certain level of privacy protection. However, someone could still randomly guess the names in your zone (such as "ftp" or "www"), as in the traditional insecure DNS.

If you have many many delegations, and have a need for opt-out to save resources, NSEC3 is for you.

Other than that, using NSEC is typically a good choice for most zone administrators, as it relieves the authoritative servers from the additional cryptographic operations that NSEC3 requires, and NSEC is comparatively easier to troubleshoot than NSEC3.

[4] Actually it cannot be verified, read the section called “How are Answers Verified?” to review why this would not work.

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