One of the most important aspects of email communication today is making sure the right person sent you the right message. There are several standards in place to address various aspects of securing email sending; one of the most commonly known is SPF (the short form of Sender Policy Framework). In this blog post we explain what SPF is, how it works, and how Amazon SES handles it. We also address the most common questions we see from customers with regard to their concerns around email security.
What is SPF?
Described in RFC 7208 (http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc7208 ), SPF is an open standard designed to prevent sender address forgery. In particular, it is used to confirm that the IP address from which an email originates is allowed to send emails by the owner of the domain that sent the email. What does that mean and how does it happen?
Before going into how SPF works, we should clarify exactly what it does and does not do. First, let’s separate the actual email message body and its headers from the SMTP protocol used to send it. SPF works by authenticating the IP address that originated the SMTP connection to the domain used in the SMTP MAIL-FROM and/or the HELO/EHLO command. The From header, which is part of the email message itself, is not covered by SPF validation. A separate standard, DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM), is used to authenticate the message body and headers against the From header domain (which can be different from the domain used in the SMTP MAIL-FROM command).
Now that we’ve talked about what SPF does, let’s look at how it actually works. SPF involves publishing a DNS record in the domain that wants to allow IP addresses to send from it. This DNS record needs to contain either blocks of IP addresses that are permitted to send from it, or another domain to which authorization is delegated (or both). When an ISP receives an email and wants to validate that the IP address that sent the mail is allowed to send it on behalf of the sending domain, the ISP performs a DNS query against the SPF record. If such a record exists and contains the IP address in question or delegates to a domain that contains it, then we know that the IP address is authorized to send emails from that domain.
SPF and Amazon SES
If you are using Amazon SES to send from your domain, you need to know that the current SES implementation involves sending emails from an SES-owned MAIL-FROM domain. This means that you do not need to make any changes to your DNS records in order for your emails to pass SPF authentication.
There are a couple of questions we frequently hear from customers with regard to SPF authorization and how it relates to Amazon SES usage.
The first concern seems to be how your sending is affected if SPF authentication is performed against Amazon SES and not against your own domain.
If you’re wondering whether any other SES customer can send on your behalf, the answer is no. SES does not allow sending from a specific domain or email address until that domain or email address has been successfully verified with SES, a process that cannot take place without the consent of the domain/address’s owner.
The next question is whether you can still have a mechanism under your control that can authenticate the email-related content that you do control (things such as the message body, or various headers such as the From header, subject, or destinations). The answer is yes -- Amazon SES offers DKIM signing capabilities (or the possibility to roll out your own). DKIM is another open standard that can authenticate the integrity of an email message, including its content and headers, and can prove to ISPs that your domain (not Amazon’s or someone else’s) takes responsibility and claims ownership of that specific email.
Another concern you may have is how much flexibility you get in using SPF to elicit a specific ISP response for unauthenticated or unauthorized emails from your domain. In particular, this concern translates into configuring DMARC (short for Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance) to work with SES. DMARC is a standard way of telling ISPs how to handle unauthenticated emails, and it’s based on both a) Successful SPF and/or DKIM authentication and b) Domain alignment (all authenticated domains must match). As explained above, your MAIL-FROM domain is currently an SES domain, which doesn’t match your sending domain (From header). As a result, SPF authentication will be misaligned for DMARC purposes. DKIM, on the other hand, provides the necessary domain alignment and ultimately satisfies DMARC because you are authenticating your From domain.
Simply put, you must enable DKIM signing for your verified domain in order to be able to successfully configure DMARC for your domain.
If you have any questions, comments or other concerns related to SPF and your Amazon SES sending, don’t hesitate to jump on the Amazon SES Forum and let us know. Thank you for choosing SES and happy sending!