DMARCLY

Everything about DMARC, DKIM, SPF, email authentication, deliverability, anti-spoofing, anti-phishing, security, and tools.

What is DMARC Identifier Alignment (domain alignment)?

Email end users check the from field in their email clients to tell where an email comes from. However, SPF doesn't authenticate the field, neither does DKIM. This means "what you see might not be what's been authenticated". That's why DMARC introduces the identifier alignment mechanism to address this issue.

Security hole in SPF

There are two from addresses in email: the envelope from address that is specified by the mail from command in an SMTP session, while the header from address is the address specified in the From header field in the SMTP data command.

By design, SPF only authenticates the envelope from address, leaving the header from address unchecked. This means that spoofers can still send the end user an email from one of the servers on the whitelist with a spoofed header from address. In other words, the from field the email end users sees in his/her email client might be different from what's been authenticated by SPF.

Security hole in DKIM

Similarly, DKIM only authenticates the d= value in the DKIM-signature, which can be different from the domain value in the header from address. The indication is obvious: the from field the email end users sees in his/her email client might be different from what's been authenticated by DKIM.

What is the central identity, and why?

The role of the central identity of an email is to identify the originator of the email for the end user. DMARC picks the domain in the header from address as the central identity for two reasons:

  • the header from address is what the end user perceives as the originator of the email;
  • the header from address is guaranteed to exist.

The idea is to associate what the email end user perceived as with something that's validated by SPF and DKIM. That is, "what you see is what's been validated/authenticated". Loopholes in SPF/DKIM patched!

Organizational Domains

The organizational domain is the "root part" of a domain. For instance, the organizational domain of mail.domain.com is domain.com.

Organizational domain is used to check identifier alignment in relaxed mode of DMARC.

What is DMARC identifier alignment?

Identifier alignment is a mechanism introduced in DMARC to ensure at least one of the domains authenticated by SPF or DKIM to "align with" the domain found in the from header address - the central identity. Identifier alignment is sometimes called domain alignment.

DMARC has two alignment modes: strict and relaxed. In the strict alignment mode, two domains must be identical in order for them to align with each other; in the relax alignment mode though, two domains align when their organizational domains are identical.

Identifier alignment in SPF

In SPF, identifier alignment means the domain portion of the envelope from address aligns with the domain found in the header from address. If the envelope from address is empty, alignment is checked against the EHLO domain.

Here are a few examples.

Example A: SPF in alignment

Envelope from address

<john@business.com>

Header

From: john@business.com
Date: Fri, Feb 25 2019 03:14:20 -1200
To: jane@example.org
Subject: Hi!

The envelope from address and the header from address have identical domains. Therefore, they are aligned.

Example B: SPF in alignment (organizational domain)

Envelope from:

<john@mail.business.com>

Header

From: john@business.com
Date: Fri, Feb 17 2019 15:14:10 -1200
To: jane@example.org
Subject: Hello!

The envelope from domain is a subdomain of the header from domain. Thus, the identifiers are in alignment if relaxed SPF mode is applied, and not in alignment if strict SPF mode is applied.

Example C: SPF not in alignment

Envelope from:

<john@business.com>

Header

From: john@business.org
Date: Fri, Feb 15 2019 13:14:20 -1200
To: jane@example.org
Subject: Hello!

The envelope from address and the header from address are neither the same nor share the same organizational domain. Thus, the identifiers are not aligned.

Identifier alignment in DKIM

In DKIM, identifier alignment means that the domain value in the d= field of DKIM-signature in the email header has to align with the domain found in the header from address.

Here are a few examples.

Example A: DKIM in alignment

d= domain

business.com

Header

From: john@business.com
Date: Fri, Feb 25 2019 03:14:20 -1200
To: jane@example.org
Subject: Hi!

The domain in the header from address is the same as the d= domain. Therefore, they are aligned.

Example B: DKIM in alignment (organizational domain)

d= domain

mail.business.com

Header

From: john@business.com
Date: Fri, Feb 17 2019 15:14:10 -1200
To: jane@example.org
Subject: Hello!

The d= field is a subdomain of the header from domain. Thus, the identifiers are in alignment if relaxed DKIM mode is applied, and not in alignment if strict DKIM mode is applied.

Example C: DKIM not in alignment

d= domain

business.com

Header

From: john@business.org
Date: Fri, Feb 15 2019 13:14:20 -1200
To: jane@example.org
Subject: Hello!

The d= field is different than the header from domain. Thus, the identifiers are not aligned.

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