It Is Known that DNS contains multitudes. Beyond its ten official record types are myriad RFC-described and wildly off-brand uses of them, and DNS TXT records contain the most possibility of weird and creative use. I quote Corey Quinn:
“I mean for God’s sake, my favorite database is Route 53, so I have other problems that I have to work through.”(From this interview.)
He’s also described it as the only database that meets its SLAs 100 percent of the time. (Route 53 is AWS’s DNS product, encompassing TXT records and many other things, if you have not had the pleasure.)
What is this mystery that is woven through the internet? Let me introduce you to (or reacquaint you with, if you’ve met) the DNS TXT record.
DNS and its ten beautiful children
There are ten kinds of DNS records, each of which will include a reference to a specific domain or subdomain, which usually exists to enable access to that domain’s server or otherwise help with business connected to that domain (email settings, for instance).
The one you might’ve seen or made the most is an A record, or an address mapping record. This is the one that matches URL to IP address – IPv4, in this case. AAAA does the same for IPv6. There are CNAMES, or canonical name records, which alias a hostname to another hostname, often used for things like $marketingproject.business.com, when the marketing project site is being hosted on Heroku or somewhere other than your company’s primary business. You can read about them all here. This post, however, and its accompanying talk (link to come) is about my favorite of them all: TXT records.
TXT records are used for important, fairly official things, but it’s only by agreed-upon practice. While you’ll see very consistent formatting in them for things like SPF, DKIM, DMARC, or domain ownership verification (often in the form of a long random string value for a key that likely starts with _g), the truth is that you can put almost anything in there. My favorite off-brand but still computer-related one I heard about was a large university that put lat/long information in each server’s TXT records, for the sake of finding it more efficiently on a sprawling campus.
For the records’ contents, there are a few restrictions:
- You cannot exceed 255 characters per string
- You can include multiple strings in a single TXT record, but they must be enclosed in straight quotes and separated by commas. These can be concatenated into necessarily longer records, like DKIM with longer keys or very elaborate SPF records
- All characters must be from the 128-character printable ASCII set (no emoji allowed, and no curly quotes or apostrophes either)
- At least on AWS, you can’t exceed 512 bytes per record, whether it’s a single string or several
- They are not returned in the order they were added (which made the Emily Dickinson poem I added as three records come out a little funny in my terminal; it still kind of worked, though)
I cribbed that together from a mix of (provider-accented) experimentation and anecdotal information from others who have pondered this stuff. The official docs are often a little hand-wavy on this level of detail (appropriately, I’d say). RFC 1035, for instance, states: “The semantics of the text depends on the domain where it is found.” For its RDATA packet, it offers this:
3.3.14. TXT RDATA format +--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+ / TXT-DATA / +--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+--+ where: TXT-DATA One or more <character-string>s.
I mean, fair. (Data goes in data place; I cannot argue with this.) Future compatibility and planning for unexpected needs to come are a part of every RFC I’ve dug into. Meanwhile, RFC 1464 more directly portends some of the weirdness that’s possible, while also explaining the most common format of TXT files I’ve seen:
host.widgets.com IN TXT "printer=lpr5" sam.widgets.com IN TXT "favorite drink=orange juice" The general syntax is: <owner> <class> <ttl> TXT "<attribute name>=<attribute value>"
I am accustomed, when dealing with infrastructure tags, to having the key-value format be required, either through a web UI that has two associated fields to complete or through a CLI tool that is very prepared to tell you when you’re doing it wrong.
I have not found this to be the case with TXT records. Whether you’re in a web UI, a CLI, or Terraform, you can just put anything – no keys or values required. Like many standards, it’s actually an optional format that’s just become normal. But you can do what you want, really.
And there are peculiarities. When doing my own DNS TXT poking for this presentation and post, I worked with Dreamhost and AWS, and they acted very differently. AWS wanted only one TXT record per domain and subdomain (so you could have one on example.com and another on wow.example.com), while Dreamhost let me make dozens – but it made DNS propagation really sluggish, sometimes getting records I’d deleted an hour ago, even after clearing the cache. (Dreamhost, meanwhile, has a hardcoded four-minute TTL for its DNS records, which you have to talk to an administrator to change, specially, on your account. It’s always interesting in DNS.) In short, the system is not prepared for that much creativity.
Too bad for the system, though. :)
DNS, ARPANET, hostnames, and the internet as we know it™️
DNS did not always exist in its current scalable, decentralized state, of course. Prior to around 1984, the connection of hostname to IP was done in a file called hosts.txt, which was maintained by the Stanford Research Institute for the ARPANET membership. The oldest example I found online is from 1974, and you can see other examples here and chart the growth of the protointernet. It went from a physical directory to more machine-readable formats, telling you and/or your computer how to reach the host identified as, say, EGLIN or HAWAII-ALOHA. These were static, updated and replaced as needed, and distributed weeklyish.
hosts.txt began its saunter out of our lives when DNS was described in 1983 and implemented in 1984, allowing the internet to scale more gracefully and its users to avoid the risk of stale files. Instead, independent queries began flying around a decentralized infrastructure, with local caches, recursive resolvers, root servers that pointed to top-level domain servers, and nameservers that kept the up-to-date IP addresses and other details for the domains in their care. (You can find a less breezy, more detailed description of this technology you used today here.)
The joys and sorrows of successful adoption
The great and terrible thing about DNS is that so many things rely on it. So if DNS is having a bad day (a much-used DNS server is down, for instance), it can interrupt a lot of processes.
That means, though, that it can also be used to do all sorts of interesting stuff. For instance, a DNS amplification attack involves sending out a ton of DNS queries from lots of sources and spoofing the source address in the packets so they all appear to come from one place, so the responses all go to one targeted server, possibly taking it down.
TXT records figure into some of this weirdness. Let’s get into some of the interesting backflips folks have done with DNS and its most flexible of record types.
This is, so far as I’ve been able to tell, the OG of DNS weirdness. It’s been going on for about 20 years and was first officially described at Black Hat in 2004 by Dan Kaminsky (who stays busy finding weird shit in DNS; if you like this stuff, you’ll enjoy digging into his work).
There are a few different ways to do this, but the central part is always smuggling some sort of information in a DNS query packet that isn’t supposed to be there.
DNS packets are often not monitored in the same way as regular web traffic (but my Google ads, in the wake of researching this piece, will tell you that there are plenty of companies out there who’d love to help you with that). The permissiveness of DNS query packet movement makes a great vector for exfiltrating data or getting malware into places it would otherwise be hard to reach.
Data is sometimes smuggled via nonexistent subdomains in the URLs the packet seems to be querying for (c2VyaW91cyBldmlsIGJ1c2luZXNzIGlzIGFmb290IGhlcmUgb2ggbm8.evil.com, for instance), but if your packet is designed to return, say, a nice chunk of TXT records? You can really stuff some information or code in there. DNS queries: they smuggle stuff AND evade lots of firewalls. Awesome!
Thwarting internet censorship
The more common DNS association with censorship is avoiding government DNS poisoning by manually setting a DNS server to 22.214.171.124. This isn’t a perfect solution and is getting less useful as more sophisticated technology is put to monitoring and controlling tech we all rely on. However, there’s another way, like David Leadbeater’s 2008 project, which put truncated Wikipedia articles in TXT records. They aren’t live anymore, but there are so many possible uses for this! Mayhem, genuine helpfulness… why not both?
DNSFS OMG OMG
Ben Cox, a British programmer, found DNS resolvers that were open to the internet and used TXT records to cache a blog post on servers all around the world. He used 250-character base64 strings of about 187 bytes each to accomplish this, and he worked out that the caches would be viable for at least a day.
I love all of this stuff, but this is probably my favorite off-brand TXT use. I honestly screamed in my apartment when I saw his animated capture of the sending and reassembly of the blog post cache proof of concept.
Contributing to the shenanigans corpus
So naturally, I wanted in on this. One does not spend weeks reading about DNS TXT record peculiarities without wanting to play too. And naturally, as a creator of occasionally inspirational zines, I wanted to leave a little trove of glitter and encouragement in an unlikely part of the internet that was designed for no such thing.
Pick a number between 1 and 50. (It was going to be 0 and 49, but Dreamhost will allow 00 as a subdomain but not 0. Go figure!) Use that number as the subdomain of maybethiscould.work. And look up the TXT record. For example:
dig txt 3.maybethiscould.work
3.maybethiscould.work. 14400 IN TXT "Tilt your head (or the thing) and look at it 90 or 180 degrees off true."
dig txt on only
maybethiscould.work, and you’ll see them all, if DNS doesn’t choke on this. My own results have varied. If you like spoilers, or not having to run
dig 50 times to see the whole of one thing you’re curious about, you can also see the entire list here.
In the meantime, now you know a little bit more about a thread of the internet that you’ve been close to and benefited from for some time. And next time: always
dig the TXT record too. Start with
dns.google if you want a strong beginning.