With the advent of digitalization, email authentication is considered a critical aspect of maintaining the security and integrity of email communications. SPF (Sender Policy Framework) is one of the massively adopted email authentication protocols that allows domain owners to specify authorized mail servers for their domain. While SPF provides a foundational level of email authentication, it is important to understand its limitations to effectively leverage it in combating email-based threats.
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In this blog post, we will explore the limitations of SPF for email authentication and discuss potential challenges that arise in its implementation.
How does SPF work?
SPF works by allowing domain owners to publish SPF records in the DNS that specify which mail servers are authorized to send emails on behalf of their domain. Receiving mail servers can then check these records to verify the authenticity of incoming emails. While SPF provides a basic level of email authentication, it has several limitations.
What are the limitations of SPF Records?
It can be a little challenging to establish and manage SPF because of two key limitations.
The SPF 10-Lookup Limit
The DNS server’s validator uses resources like bandwidth, time, CPU, and memory when a user makes a query. There is an SPF limit of 10 extra lookups in order to minimize the impact on the validator. However, this restriction does not apply to the DNS query for the SPF policy record itself.
The recipient’s mail server shouldn’t continue processing after the 10-lookup limit has been reached, in accordance with RFC7208 section 4.6.4. The email in this situation rejects SPF validation and displays a Permerror error. The warning of “Permerror” is likely to appear frequently throughout the SPF implementation procedure. It results in email delivery failure and can happen when a domain has multiple SPF records, a syntax error appears, or SPF record limits have been surpassed.
To know more about the permError check out this blog.
Additionally, a hostname detected in an MX record should not return more than 10 A records or AAAA records in a DNS query, as per RFC. Only the first 10 results of a DNS PTR query are shown and used if there are more than 10 results.
The Address in Human-Readable Form
The second SPF restriction is that, rather than applying to the From address, SPF records only cover particular Return-Path domains. When opening an email, recipients typically give more attention to the From address than the Return-Path address. By altering the From address, hackers try to launch phishing attacks using this vulnerability.
What are the effects of SPF record size on email delivery?
When a receiver has more SPF records than allowed, SPF checks are unsuccessful, and a Permerror is generated. This issue can be seen when DMARC monitoring is used. When emails contain Permerror failures, the recipient has a choice in how to handle them. They have the option to reject it, in which case the email would be returned. Some recipients have it set up to display a ‘neutral’ SPF result (as if no SPF is employed). They can also select “fail” or “soft fail,” which means emails that fail the SPF authentication tests are placed in the spam folder rather than being discarded.
Know more about the difference between softfail and hardfail in our blog.
Additionally, the outcomes of DMARC, DKIM, and spam rating are taken into account while determining these results. Email deliverability is impacted by exceeding the SPF limit since fewer emails are likely to reach the intended recipients’ primary inboxes.
How may the number of necessary lookups be decreased?
Given that email exchange habits have changed dramatically since 2006 (the year RFC4408 was implemented), it can be challenging for certain domain owners to stay below the SPF restriction of 10 lookups.
Nowadays, businesses use numerous cloud-based applications and services under a single domain. So, the methods listed below can help you get over this typical SPF restriction.
Delete Any Useless Services
Examine your SF record to see whether any services are underused or unnecessary. Look for any ‘include’ or other techniques that indicate domains of services that are no longer in use.
Get Rid of Default SPF Values
Typically, the SPF policy is set to “v=spf1 an mx.” The ‘a’ and ‘mx’ mechanisms are not necessary because the majority of A and AAAA records are used for web servers, which may not send emails.
Do Not Employ the PTR Mechanism
The ptr technique is strongly discouraged because of its unreliable and lax security. Because it demands more lookups, the technique contributes to the SPF limit issue. Consequently, it should be avoided wherever possible.
Use the mx Mechanism Cautiously
Not always utilized for sending emails, the mx method is used for receiving them. You can keep inside the SPF record limit specified for lookups by avoiding utilizing it because of this. Use the ‘include’ approach if you use a cloud-based email provider instead.
How DMARC Helps to Get Around SPF’s Limitations?
The human-readable From Address limitation of SPF is addressed by DMARC by mandating a match or alignment between the human-readable From field and the SPF-authenticated server.
As a result, DMARC takes precedence over SPF checks if an email’s domain is different from its From address. This indicates that the email failed the authentication check.
While SPF is a widely used email authentication protocol, it has limitations that can impact its effectiveness in verifying email authenticity. By leveraging the connection between SPF, DMARC, and DKIM, you can establish a robust email authentication framework that addresses these limitations.
GoDMARC offers you the best DMARC services which can aid in enhancing email deliverability, protects against spoofing and phishing attempts, and ensures the integrity and security of email communications.
Q1. What is SPF’s main limitation for email authentication?
A SPF’s main limitation is its focus on authenticating the envelope sender’s address, which doesn’t provide end-to-end message integrity verification.
Q2. How does SPF handle forwarding scenarios?
A SPF encounters challenges with forwarding scenarios as the forwarding server is typically not authorized, leading to SPF failure and potential delivery issues.