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Dotless domains “dangerous”, security study says

Kevin Murphy, August 6, 2013, 08:48:00 (UTC), Domain Tech

An independent security study has given ICANN a couple dozen very good reasons to continue outlaw “dotless” domain names, but stopped short of recommending an outright ban.

The study, conducted by boutique security outfit Carve Systems and published by ICANN this morning, confirms that dotless domains — as it sounds, a single TLD label with no second-level domain and no dot — are potentially “dangerous”.

If dotless domains were to be allowed by ICANN, internet users may unwittingly send their private data across the internet instead of a local network, Carve found.

That’s basically the same “internal name collision” problem outlined in a separate paper, also published today, by Interisle Consulting (more on that later).

But dotless domains would also open up networks to serious vulnerabilities such as cookie leakage and cross-site scripting attacks, according to the report.

“A bug in a dotless website could be used to target any website a user frequents,” it says.

Internet Explorer, one of the many applications tested by Carve, automatically assumes dotless domains are local network resources and gives them a higher degree of trust, it says.

Such domains also pose risks to users of standard local networking software and residential internet routers, the study found. It’s not just Windows boxes either — MacOS and Unix could also be affected.

These are just a few of the 25 distinct security risks Carve identified, 10 of which are considered serious.

ICANN has a default prohibition on dotless gTLDs in the new gTLD Applicant Guidebook, but it’s allowed would-be registries to specially request the ability to go dotless via Extended Evaluation and the Registry Services Evaluation Process (with no guarantee of success, of course).

So far, Google is the only high-profile new gTLD applicant to say it wants a dotless domain. It wants to turn .search into such a service and expects to make a request for it via RSEP.

Other portfolio applicants, such as Donuts and Uniregistry, have also said they’re in favor of dotless gTLDs.

Given the breadth of the potential problems identified by Carve, you might expect a recommendation that dotless domains should be banned outright. But that didn’t happen.

Instead, the company has recommended that only certain strings likely to have a huge impact on many internet users — such as “mail” and “local” — be permanently prohibited as dotless TLDs.

It also recommends lots of ways ICANN could allow dotless domains and mitigate the risk. For example, it suggests massive educational outreach to hardware and software vendors and to end users.

Establish guidelines for software and hardware manufacturers to follow when selecting default dotless names for use on private networks. These organizations should use names from a restricted set of dotless domain names that will never be allowed on the public Internet.

Given that most people have never heard of ICANN, that internet standards generally take a long time to adopt, and allowing for regular hardware upgrade cycles, I couldn’t see ICANN pulling off such a feat for at least five to 10 years.

I can’t see ICANN approving any dotless domains any time soon, but it does appear to have wiggle-room in future. ICANN said:

The ICANN Board New gTLD Program Committee (NGPC) will consider dotless domain names and an appropriate risk mitigation approach at its upcoming meeting in August.

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