DNS Query Minimization and Data Leaks

When a recursive resolver receives a query from a host, it will first consult any local cache to discover if it has the information required to resolve the query. If it does not, it will begin with the rightmost section of the domain name, the Top Level Domain (TLD), moving left through each section of the Fully Qualified Domain Name (FQDN), in order to find an IP address to return to the host, as shown in the diagram below.

This is pretty simple at its most basic level, of course—virtually every network engineer in the world understands this process (and if you don’t, you should enroll in my How the Internet Really Works webinar the next time it is offered!). The question almost no-one ever asks, however, is: what, precisely, is the recursive server sending to the root, TLD, and authoritative servers?

Begin with the perspective of a coder who is developing the code for that recursive server. You receive a query from a host, you have the code check the local cache, and you find there is no matching information available locally. This means you need to send a query out to some other server to determine the correct IP address to return to the host. You could keep a copy of the query from the host in your local cache and build a new query to send to the root server.

Remember, however, that local server resources may be scarce; recursive servers must be optimized to process very high query rates very quickly. Much of the user’s perception of network performance is actually tied to DNS performance. A second option is you could save local memory and processing power by sending the entire query, as you have received it, on to the root server. This way, you do not need to build a new query packet to send to the root server.

Consider this process, however, in the case of a query for a local, internal resource you would rather not let the world know exists. The recursive server, by sending the entire query to the root server, is also sending information about the internal DNS structure and potential internal server names to the external root server. As the FQDN is resolved (or not), this same information is sent to the TLD and authoritative servers, as well.

There is something else contained here, however, that is not so obvious—the IP address of the requestor is contained in that original query, as well. Not only is your internal namespace leaking, your internal IP addresses are leaking, as well.

This is not only a massive security hole for your organization, it also exposes information from individual users on the global ‘net.

There are several things that can be done to resolve this problem. Organizationally, running a private DNS server, hard coding resolving servers for internal domains, and using internal domains that are not part of the existing TLD infrastructure, can go a long way towards preventing information leaking of this kind through DNS. Operating a DNS server internally might not be ideal, of course, although DNS services are integrated into a lot of other directory services used in operational networks. If you are using a local DNS server, it is important to remember to configure DHCP and/or IPv6 ND to send the correct, internal, DNS server address, rather than an external address. It is also important to either block or redirect DNS queries sent to public servers by hosts using hard-coded DNS server configurations.

A second line of defense is through DNS query minimization. Described in RFC7816, query minimization argues recursive servers should use QNAME queries to only ask about the one relevant part of the FQDN. For instance, if the recursive server receives a query for www.banana.example, the server should request information about .example from the root server, banana.example from the TLD, and send the full requested domain name only to the authoritative server. This way, the full search is not exposed to the intermediate servers, protecting user information.

Some recursive server implementations already support QNAME queries. If you are running a server for internal use, you should ensure the server you are using supports DNS query minimization. If you are directing your personal computer or device to publicly reachable recursive servers, you should investigate whether these servers support DNS query minimization.

Even with DNS query minimization, your recursive server still knows a lot about what you ask for—the topic of discussion on a forthcoming episode of the Hedge, where our guest will be Geoff Huston.


  1. Cathal Mooney on 29 August 2019 at 6:18 am

    Great post, obviously the DoT and (especially) DoH developments add another layer of complexity around this too. I’m sure Geoff Huston will be typically opinionated on all of it when you get him on (delighted to hear you have him lined up as a guest!)

    • Russ on 29 August 2019 at 9:03 pm

      Your’e in luck — I just happen to have an upcoming pair of episodes of the Hedge with Geoff as the guest, talking about this very topic.

      🙂 /r