Remediating new DNSSEC resource exhaustion vulnerabilities

Cloudflare has been part of a multivendor, industry-wide effort to mitigate two critical DNSSEC vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities exposed significant risks to critical infrastructures that provide DNS resolution services. Cloudflare provides DNS resolution for anyone to use for free with our public resolver service. Mitigations for Cloudflare’s public resolver service were applied before these vulnerabilities were disclosed publicly. Internal resolvers using unbound (open source software) were upgraded promptly after a new software version fixing these vulnerabilities was released.

All Cloudflare DNS infrastructure was protected from both of these vulnerabilities before they were disclosed and is safe today. These vulnerabilities do not affect our Authoritative DNS or DNS firewall products.

All major DNS software vendors have released new versions of their software. All other major DNS resolver providers have also applied appropriate mitigations. Please update your DNS resolver software immediately, if you haven’t done so already.


Domain name system (DNS) security extensions, commonly known as DNSSEC, are extensions to the DNS protocol that add authentication and integrity capabilities. DNSSEC uses cryptographic keys and signatures that allow DNS responses to be validated as authentic. DNSSEC protocol specifications have certain requirements that prioritize availability at the cost of increased complexity and computational cost for the validating DNS resolvers. The mitigations for the vulnerabilities discussed in this blog require local policies to be applied that relax these requirements in order to avoid exhausting the resources of validators.

The design of the DNS and DNSSEC protocols follows the Robustness principle: “be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others”. There have been many vulnerabilities in the past that have taken advantage of protocol requirements following this principle. Malicious actors can exploit these vulnerabilities to attack DNS infrastructure, in this case by causing additional work for DNS resolvers by crafting DNSSEC responses with complex configurations. As is often the case, we find ourselves having to create a pragmatic balance between the flexibility that allows a protocol to adapt and evolve and the need to safeguard the stability and security of the services we operate.

Cloudflare’s public resolver is a privacy-centric public resolver service. We have been using stricter validations and limits aimed at protecting our own infrastructure in addition to shielding authoritative DNS servers operated outside our network. As a result, we often receive complaints about resolution failures. Experience shows us that strict validations and limits can impact availability in some edge cases, especially when DNS domains are improperly configured. However, these strict validations and limits are necessary to improve the overall reliability and resilience of the DNS infrastructure.

The vulnerabilities and how we mitigated them are described below.

Keytrap vulnerability (CVE-2023-50387)


A DNSSEC signed zone can contain multiple keys (DNSKEY) to sign the contents of a DNS zone and a Resource Record Set (RRSET) in a DNS response can have multiple signatures (RRSIG). Multiple keys and signatures are required to support things like key rollover, algorithm rollover, and multi-signer DNSSEC. DNSSEC protocol specifications require a validating DNS resolver to try every possible combination of keys and signatures when validating a DNS response.

During validation, a resolver looks at the key tag of every signature and tries to find the associated key that was used to sign it. A key tag is an unsigned 16-bit number calculated as a checksum over the key’s resource data (RDATA). Key tags are intended to allow efficient pairing of a signature with the key which has supposedly created it.  However, key tags are not unique, and it is possible that multiple keys can have the same key tag. A malicious actor can easily craft a DNS response with multiple keys having the same key tag together with multiple signatures, none of which might validate. A validating resolver would have to try every combination (number of keys multiplied by number of signatures) when trying to validate this response. This increases the computational cost of the validating resolver many-fold, degrading performance for all its users. This is known as the Keytrap vulnerability.

Variations of this vulnerability include using multiple signatures with one key, using one signature with multiple keys having colliding key tags, and using multiple keys with corresponding hashes added to the parent delegation signer record.


We have limited the maximum number of keys we will accept at a zone cut. A zone cut is where a parent zone delegates to a child zone, e.g. where the .com zone delegates to Cloudflare nameservers. Even with this limit already in place and various other protections built for our platform, we realized that it would still be computationally costly to process a malicious DNS answer from an authoritative DNS server.

To address and further mitigate this vulnerability, we added a signature validations limit per RRSET and a total signature validations limit per resolution task. One resolution task might include multiple recursive queries to external authoritative DNS servers in order to answer a single DNS question. Clients queries exceeding these limits will fail to resolve and will receive a response with an Extended DNS Error (EDE) code 0. Furthermore, we added metrics which will allow us to detect attacks attempting to exploit this vulnerability.

NSEC3 iteration and closest encloser proof vulnerability (CVE-2023-50868)


NSEC3 is an alternative approach for authenticated denial of existence. You can learn more about authenticated denial of existence here. NSEC3 uses a hash derived from DNS names instead of the DNS names directly in an attempt to prevent zone enumeration and the standard supports multiple iterations for hash calculations. However, because the full DNS name is used as input to the hash calculation, increasing hashing iterations beyond the initial doesn’t provide any additional value and is not recommended in RFC9276. This complication is further inflated while finding the closest enclosure proof. A malicious DNS response from an authoritative DNS server can set a high NSEC3 iteration count and long DNS names with multiple DNS labels to exhaust the computing resources of a validating resolver by making it do unnecessary hash computations.


For this vulnerability, we applied a similar mitigation technique as we did for Keytrap. We added a limit for total hash calculations per resolution task to answer a single DNS question. Similarly, clients queries exceeding this limit will fail to resolve and will receive a response with an EDE code 27. We also added metrics to track hash calculations allowing early detection of attacks attempting to exploit this vulnerability.


Date and time in UTC


2023-11-03 16:05

John Todd from Quad9 invites Cloudflare to participate in a joint task force to discuss a new DNS vulnerability. 

2023-11-07 14:30

A group of DNS vendors and service providers meet to discuss the vulnerability during IETF 118. Discussions and collaboration continues in a closed chat group hosted at DNS-OARC

2023-12-08 20:20

Cloudflare public resolver is fully patched to mitigate Keytrap vulnerability (CVE-2023-50387)

2024-01-17 22:39

Cloudflare public resolver is fully patched to mitigate NSEC3 iteration count and closest encloser vulnerability (CVE-2023-50868)

2024-02-13 13:04

Unbound package is released 

2024-02-13 23:00

Cloudflare internal CDN resolver is fully patched to mitigate both CVE-2023-50387 and CVE-2023-50868


We would like to thank Elias Heftrig, Haya Schulmann, Niklas Vogel, Michael Waidner from the German National Research Center for Applied Cybersecurity ATHENE, for discovering the Keytrap vulnerability and doing a responsible disclosure.

We would like to thank Petr Špaček from Internet Systems Consortium (ISC) for discovering the NSEC3 iteration and closest encloser proof vulnerability and doing a responsible disclosure.

We would like to thank John Todd from Quad9  and the DNS Operations Analysis and Research Center (DNS-OARC) for facilitating coordination amongst various stakeholders.

And finally, we would like to thank the DNS-OARC community members, representing various DNS vendors and service providers, who all came together and worked tirelessly to fix these vulnerabilities, working towards a common goal of making the internet resilient and secure.

Source:: CloudFlare