The original base of Internet email, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), has no such feature, so forged sender addresses in emails (a practice known as email spoofing) have been widely used in phishing, email spam, and various types of frauds. To combat this, many competing email authentication proposals have been developed, but only fairly recently have three been widely adopted – SPF, DKIM and DMARC. The results of such validation can be used in automated email filtering, or can assist recipients when selecting an appropriate action.
This article does not cover user authentication of email submission and retrieval.
Email authentication is a necessary first step towards identifying the origin of messages, and thereby making policies and laws more enforceable.
Hinging on domain ownership is a stance that emerged in the early 2000. It implies a coarse-grained authentication, given that domains appear on the right part of email addresses, after the at sign. Fine-grain authentication, at user level, can be achieved by other means, such as Pretty Good Privacy and S/MIME. At present, digital identity needs to be managed by each individual.
An outstanding rationale for email authentication is the ability to automate email filtering at receiving servers. That way, spoofed messages can be rejected before they arrive to a user's Inbox. While protocols strive to devise ways to reliably block distrusted mail, security indicators can tag unauthenticated messages that still reach the Inbox. A 2018 study shows that security indicators can lower the click-through ratio by more than ten points, 48.9% to 37.2% of the users who open spoofed messages.
A mail user agent (MUA) knows the outgoing mail SMTP server from its configuration. An MTA (or a relay server) typically determines which server to connect to by looking up the MX record (Mail eXchange) DNS resource record for each recipient's domain name.
The path depicted below can be reconstructed on the ground of the trace header fields that each host adds to the top of the header when it receives the message:
by C.example.net (which is me) with ESMTP id 936ADB8838C
Received: from A.example.com by B.example.com with SMTP; Tue, 05 Feb 2013 17:44:47 +0100
Received: from 192.0.2.27 by A.example.com with SMTP; Tue, 05 Feb 2013 17:44:42 +0100
Normally, messages sent out by an author's ADMD go directly to the destination's MX record (that is B → D in the figures). The sender's ADMD can add authentication tokens only if the message goes through its boxes. The most common cases can be schematized as follows:
Access Providers MUST NOT block users from accessing the external Internet using the SUBMISSION port 587.
The IP address of the sending MTA is guaranteed to be valid by the Transmission Control Protocol, as it establishes the connection by checking that the remote host is reachable.IP Address forgery is possible, but generally involves a lower level of criminal behavior (breaking and entering, wiretapping, etc.), which are too risky for a typical hacker or spammer, or insecure servers not implementing RFC 1948, see also Transmission Control Protocol#Connection hijacking. The receiving mail server receives the HELO SMTP command soon after the connection is set up, and a [[bounce address|Mail from:]] at the beginning of each message. Both of them can contain a domain name. The SPF verifier queries the Domain Name System (DNS) for a matching SPF record, which if it exists will specify the IP addresses authorized by that domain's administrator. The result can be "pass", "fail", or some intermediate result - and systems will generally take this into account in their anti-spam filtering.
A DKIM-compliant domain administrator generates one or more pairs of asymmetric keys, then hands private keys to the signing MTA, and publishes public keys on the DNS. The DNS labels are structured as ''selector''._domainkey.example.com, where selector identifies the key pair, and _domainkey is a fixed keyword, followed by the signing domain's name so that publication occurs under the authority of that domain's ADMD. Just before injecting a message into the SMTP transport system, the signing MTA creates a digital signature that covers selected fields of the header and the body (or just its beginning). The signature should cover substantive header fields such as From:, To:, Date:, and Subject:, and then is added to the message header itself, as a trace field. Any number of relays can receive and forward the message and at every hop, the signature can be verified by retrieving the public key from the DNS. As long as intermediate relays don't modify signed parts of a message, its DKIM-signatures remain valid.
It allows the administrative owner of a domain to publish a policy in their DNS records to specify which mechanism (DKIM, SPF or both) is employed when sending email from that domain; how to check the From: field presented to end users; how the receiver should deal with failures - and a reporting mechanism for actions performed under those policies.
A sender can apply for a reference at a vouching authority. The reference, if accepted, is published on the DNS branch managed by that authority. A vouched sender should add a VBR-Info: header field to the messages it sends. It should also add a DKIM signature, or use some other authentication method, such as SPF. A receiver, after validating the sender's identity, can verify the vouch claimed in VBR-Info: by looking up the reference.
The IP reverse, confirmed by looking up the IP address of the name just found, is just an indication that the IP was set up properly in the DNS. The reverse resolution of a range of IP addresses can be delegated to the ADMD that uses them, or can remain managed by the network provider. In the latter case, no useful identity related to the message can be obtained.
For example, the following field is purportedly written by receiver.example.org and reports SPF and DKIM results:
For a Mail User Agent (MUA), it is slightly harder to learn what identities it can trust. Since users can receive email from multiple domains—e.g., if they have multiple email addresses -— any of those domains could let Authentication-Results: fields pass through because they looked neutral. That way, a malicious sender can forge an authserv-id that the user would trust if the message arrived from a different domain. A legitimate Authentication-Results: typically appears just above a Received: field by the same domain from which the message was relayed. Additional Received: fields may appear between that and the top of the header, as the message got transferred internally between servers belonging to that same, trusted ADMD.
The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority maintains a registry of Email Authentication Parameters. Not all parameters need to be registered, though. For example, there can be local "policy" values designed for a site's internal use only, which correspond to local configuration and need no registration.