When the global rollout of the DNS Security Extensions (DNSSEC) began in
2005, it started a first-of-its-kind trial: increasing complexity of a core
Internet protocol in favor of better security for the overall Internet. The
necessary cryptographic key management is made particularly challenging by DNS’
loosely-federated delegation substrate and unprecedented cryptographic scale.
Though fundamental for current and future operational success, our community
lacks a clear notion of how to empirically evaluate the process of securely
changing (or transitioning) keys.

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In this paper, we propose two building blocks to fundamentally understand and
assess key transitions. First, the anatomy of key transitions: measurable and
well-defined properties of key changes; and second a novel classification model
based on this anatomy to describe key transitions practices in abstract terms.
Our anatomy enables the evaluation of cryptographic keys’ life cycles in
general, and comparison of operational practices with prescribed key management
processes, e.g., RFC key rollover guidelines. The fine-grained transition
anatomy is then abstracted through our classification model to characterize
transitions in abstract terms which rather describe a transition’s behavior
than its specific features.

The applicability and utility of our proposed transition anatomy and
transition classes are exemplified for the global DNSSEC deployment.
Specifically, we use measurements from the first 15 years of the DNSSEC rollout
to detect and measure which key rollover/transitions have been used, to what
degree, and what their rates of errors and warnings have been. Our results show
measurable gaps between prescribed key management processes and key transitions
in the wild. We also find evidence that such noncompliant transitions are
inevitable in the wild.

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