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Pilot program for Whois killer launches

Kevin Murphy, September 7, 2017, Domain Tech

ICANN is to oversee a set of pilot programs for RDAP, the protocol expected to eventually replace Whois.

Registration Data Access Protocol, an IETF standard since 2015, fills the same function as Whois, but it is more structured and enables access control rules.

ICANN said this week that it has launched the pilot in response to a request last month from the Registries Stakeholder Group and Registrars Stakeholder Group. It said on its web site:

The goal of this pilot program is to develop a baseline profile (or profiles) to guide implementation, establish an implementation target date, and develop a plan for the implementation of a production RDAP service.

Participation will be voluntary by registries and registrars. It appears that ICANN is merely coordinating the program, which will see registrars and registrars offer their own individual pilots.

So far, no registries or registrars have notified ICANN of their own pilots, but the program is just a few days old.

It is expected that the pilots will allow registrars and registries to experiment with different types of profiles (how the data is presented) and extensions before ICANN settles on a standard, contractually enforced format.

Under RDAP, ICANN/IANA acts as a “bootstrapping” service, maintaining a list of RDAP servers and making it easier to discover which entity is authoritative for which domain name.

RDAP is basically Whois, but it’s based on HTTP/S and JSON, making it easier to for software to parse and easier to compare records between TLDs and registrars.

It also allows non-Latin scripts to be more easily used, allowing internationalized registration data.

Perhaps most controversially, it is also expected to allow differentiated access control.

This means in future, depending on what policies the ICANN community puts in place, millions of current Whois users could find themselves with access to fewer data elements than they do today.

The ICANN pilot will run until July 31, 2018.

About that $3,800 emoji domain sale…

Kevin Murphy, June 5, 2017, Domain Tech

The debate over the age of the emoji domain name ☮.com may have been settled. It probably is as old as it was claimed to be.

You may recall that last week I blogged about the €3,400 ($3,816) sale of the domain to an end user. It wasn’t a big sale or a big story, but it’s so rare to see an emoji name sell I thought it was worth a few paragraphs.

It had been claimed, and I reported, that the name was 16 years old, having been registered in April 2001.

Later that day, ICANN principle technologist Paul Hoffman, who was co-author of the IDNA2003 standard that governed how non-ASCII domains were represented in the DNS, questioned whether the name could possibly be that old.

Under IDNA2003, IDNs are encoded with the “xn--” prefix. While applications may render ☮.com as the “peace” symbol, in the DNS it is in fact xn--v4h.com.

Hoffman told me that the prefix had been picked more or less at random in March 2003, so there was no way a speculator could have known in April 2001 how to register a domain that would have no meaning for another two years.

In addition, the Punycode standard that converts non-Latin characters to ASCII was not finalized until 2003 either.

It seemed more likely that the creation date in the Whois record was incorrect, so I updated the original blog post with the new information.

That kicked off a bit of a debate in the comments about scenarios in which the creation date was correct. Some commenters wondered whether the original buyer had registered many domains with different prefixes with the hope of getting lucky.

What none of us considered was that the domain itself changed between 2001 and 2003. Given new information Hoffman supplied over the weekend, that now strikes me as the most plausible scenario.

What most of us had forgotten was that Verisign launched an IDN registration test-bed all the way back in December 2000 (archive.org link).

That roll-out, controversial at the time, encoded the domains with Punycode predecessor RACE and used the bq– prefix.

However, after the IDNA2003 and Punycode standards were published in 2003, Verisign then converted all of the existing IDN .com domains over to the two new standards. Names beginning bq– were changed to xn--, and the encoding of the subsequent characters was changed.

So ☮.com very probably was registered in 2001, but in ASCII it was a completely different domain name back then.

We seem to have a rare(ish) case here of the creation date in the Whois being “right” but the domain name itself being “wrong”.

There may be as many as half a million .com domains with similar issues in their Whois.

I hope this clears up any confusion.

Emoji domains get a 👎 from security panel

Kevin Murphy, May 30, 2017, Domain Tech

The use of emojis in domain names has been discouraged by ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee.

In a paper late last week, SSAC told ICANN that emojis — aka emoticons or smileys — lack standardization, are barred by the relevant domain name technical standards, and could cause user confusion.

Emoji domains, while technically possible, are not particularly prevalent on the internet right now.

They’re implicitly banned in gTLDs due to the contractual requirement to adhere to the IDNA2008 standard, which restricts internationalized domain names to actual spoken human languages, and the only ccTLD I’m aware of actively marketing the names is Samoa’s .ws.

There was a notable example of Coca Cola registering 😀.ws (xn--h28h.ws) for a billboard marketing campaign in Puerto Rico a couple of years ago, but that name has since expired and been registered by an Australian photographer.

The SSAC said that emoji use should be banned in TLDs and discouraged at the second level for several reasons.

Mainly, the problem is that while emojis are described in the Unicode standards, there’s no standardization across devices and applications as to how they are displayed.

A certain degree of creative flair is permitted, meaning a smiling face in one app may look unlike the technically same emoji in another app. On smaller screens and with smaller fonts, technically different emojis may look alike.

This could lead to confusion, which could lead to security problems, SSAC warns:

It is generally difficult for people to figure out how to specify exactly what happy face they are trying to produce, and different systems represent the same emoji with different code points. The shape and color of emoji can change while a user is viewing them, and the user has no way of knowing whether what they are seeing is what the sender intended. As a result, the user is less likely to reach the intended resource and may instead be tricked by a phishing site or other intentional misrepresentation.

SSAC added that it:

strongly discourages the registration of any domain name that includes emoji in any of its labels. The SSAC also advises registrants of domain names with emoji that such domains may not function consistently or may not be universally accessible as expected

The brief paper can be read here (pdf).

Want to be one of the internet’s SEVEN SECRET KEY-HOLDERS? Apply now!

Kevin Murphy, May 22, 2017, Domain Tech

ICANN has put out a call for volunteers, looking for people to become what are sometimes referred to as “the internet’s seven secret key holders”.

Specifically, it needs Trusted Community Representatives, people of standing in the internet community who don’t mind carrying around a small key and getting a free trip to Los Angeles or Virginia once or twice a year.

The TCRs are used in the paranoia-inducing cryptographic key-signing ceremonies that provide DNSSEC at the root of the domain name system.

The ceremonies take place at ICANN data centers four times a year. The ceremonies themselves take hours, involve multiple layers of physical and data security, and the volunteers are expected to hang around for a day or two before and after each.

There’s no compensation involved, but the TCRs are allowed to apply to ICANN for travel reimbursements.

ICANN expects TCRs to stick around for about five years, but the large majority of the 28 people who act as TCRs (yeah, it’s not seven, it’s 28) have been in the role since 2010 and ICANN is probably planning a cull.

Other than knowing what the DNS is and how it works, the primary requirements are “integrity, objectivity, and intelligence, with reputations for sound judgment and open minds”.

If you think you tick those boxes, head here to apply.

Massive ransomware attack hits 150 countries, brought down by a domain reg

Kevin Murphy, May 15, 2017, Domain Tech

A massive outbreak of malware on Friday hit thousands of organizations in an estimated 150 countries and had a big impact on the UK National Health Service before being temporarily thwarted by a single domain name registration.

WannaCry, as the malware has been called, targets Windows boxes that have not installed a March security patch. It encrypts files on the hosts it infects and demands money for the decryption key.

The attack is Big News for several reasons.

First, it spread ransomware over the network using a remotely exploitable vulnerability that required no user error or social engineering to install itself.

Second, it hit an estimated quarter-million machines, including thousands at big organizations such as Telefonica, the NHS, Deutsche Bahn and FedEx.

Third, it posed a real risk to human life. A reported 70,000 NHS machines, including medical devices, were said to be infected. Reportedly, some non-critical patients had to be turned away from UK hospitals and operations were cancelled due to the inability of doctors to access medical records.

Fourth, WannaCry appears to have been based on code developed by the US National Security Agency and leaked last month.

All in all, it was an attack the scale of which we have not seen for many years.

But it seems to have been “accidentally” prevented from propagating further on Friday, at least temporarily, with the simple act of registering a domain name.

A young British security researcher who goes by the online handle MalwareTech said he was poring over the WannaCry code on Friday afternoon when he came across an unregistered domain name.

On the assumption that the malware author perhaps planned to use the domain as a command and control center, MalwareTech spent the ten bucks to register it.

MalwareTech discovered that after the domain was registered, the malware stopped encrypting the hard drives it infected.

He first thought it was a fail-safe or kill-switch, but he later came to the conclusion that the author had included the domain lookup as a way to thwart security researchers such as himself, who run malware code in protected sandbox environments.

MalwareTech wrote:

In certain sandbox environments traffic is intercepted by replying to all URL lookups with an IP address belonging to the sandbox rather than the real IP address the URL points to, a side effect of this is if an unregistered domain is queried it will respond as [if] it were registered

Once the domain was registered, WannaCry iterations on newly infected machines assume they were running in sandboxes and turned themselves off before causing additional damage.

MalwareTech was naturally enough proclaimed the hero of the day by many news outlets, but it appears that versions of the malware without the DNS query kill-switch already started circulating over the weekend.

Many are warning that the start of the work week today may see a new rash of infections.

The researcher’s account of the incident can be read in full here.