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Whois privacy did NOT increase spam volumes

Kevin Murphy, August 31, 2018, Domain Tech

The advent of more-or-less blanket Whois privacy has not immediately led to the feared uptick in spam, according to researchers.

Data from Cisco’s Talos email data service, first highlighted by security company Recorded Future this week, shows spam levels have been basically flat to slightly down since ICANN’s GDPR-inspired new Whois policy came into effect May 25.

Public Talos data shows that on May 1 this year there were 433.9 billion average daily emails and 370.04 billion spams — 85.28% spam.

This was down to 361.83 billion emails and 308.05 billion spams by August 1, an 85.14% spam ratio, according to Recorded Future.

So, basically no change, and certainly not the kind of rocketing skyward of spam levels that some had feared.

Cisco compiles its data from customers of its various security products and services.

Looking at Talos’ 18-month view, it appears that spam volume has been on the decline since February, when the ratio of spam to ham was pretty much identical to post-GDPR levels.

It also shows a similar seasonal decline during the northern hemisphere’s summer 2017.

Talos graph

There had been a fear in some quarters that blanket Whois privacy would embolden spammers to register more domains and launch more ambitious spam campaigns, and that the lack of public data would thwart efforts to root out the spammers themselves.

While that may well transpire in future, the data seems to show that GDPR has not yet had a measurable impact on spam volume at all.

ICANN faces critical choice as security experts warn against key rollover

Kevin Murphy, August 23, 2018, Domain Tech

Members of ICANN’s top security body have advised the organization to further delay plans to change the domain name system’s top cryptographic key.

Five dissenting members of the influential, 22-member Security and Stability Advisory Committee said they believe “the risks of rolling in accordance with the current schedule are larger than the risks of postponing”.

Their comments relate to the so-called KSK rollover, which would see ICANN for the first time ever change the key-signing key that acts as the trust anchor for all DNSSEC queries on the internet.

ICANN is fairly certain rolling the key will cause DNS resolution problems for some — possibly as much as 0.05% of the internet or a couple million people — but it currently lacks the data to be absolutely certain of the scale of the impact.

What it does know — explained fairly succinctly in this newly published guide (pdf) — is that within 48 hours of the roll, a certain small percentage of internet users will start to see DNS resolution fail.

But there’s a prevailing school of thought that believes the longer the rollover is postponed, the bigger that number of affected users will become.

The rollover is currently penciled in for October 11, but the ultimate decision on whether to go ahead rests with the ICANN board of directors.

David Conrad, the organization’s CTO, told us last week that his office has already decided to recommend that the roll should proceed as planned. At the time, he noted that SSAC was a few days late in delivering its own verdict.

Now, after some apparently divisive discussions, that verdict is in (pdf).

SSAC’s majority consensus is that it “has not identified any reason within the SSAC’s scope why the rollover should not proceed as currently planned.”

That’s in line with what Conrad, and the Root Server System Advisory Committee have said. But SSAC noted:

The assessment of risk in this particular area has some uncertainty and therefore includes a component of subjective judgement. Individuals (including some members of the SSAC) have different assessments of the overall balance of risk of the resumption of this plan.

It added that it’s up to the ICANN board (comprised largely of non-security people) to make the final call on what the acceptable level of risk is.

The minority, dissenting opinion gets into slightly more detail:

The decision to proceed with the keyroll is a complex tradeoff of technical and non-technical risks. While there is risk in proceeding with the currently planned roll, we understand that there is also risk in further delay, including loss of confidence in DNSSEC operational planning, potential for more at-risk users as more DNSSEC validation is deployed, etc.

While evaluating these risks, the consensus within the SSAC is that proceeding is preferable to delay. We personally evaluate the tradeoffs differently, and we believe that the risks of rolling in accordance with the current schedule are larger than the risks of postponing and focusing heavily on additional research and outreach, and in particular leveraging newly developed techniques that provide better signal and fidelity into potentially impacted parties.

We would like to reiterate that we understand our colleagues’ position, but evaluate the risks and associated mitigation prospects differently. We believe that the ultimate decision lies with the ICANN Board, and do not envy them with this decision.

SSAC members are no slouches when it comes to security expertise, and the dissenting members are no exception. They are:

  • Lyman Chapin, co-owner of Interisle Consulting, a regular ICANN contractor perhaps best-known to DI readers for carrying out a study into new gTLD name collisions five years ago.
  • Kimberly “kc claffy” Claffy, head of the Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis at the University of California in San Diego. CAIDA does nothing but map and measure the internet.
  • Jay Daley, a registry executive with a technical background whose career includes senior stints at .uk and .nz. He’s currently keeping the CEO’s chair warm at .org manager Public Interest Registry.
  • Warren Kumari, a senior network security engineer at Google, which is probably the largest early adopter of DNSSEC on the resolution side.
  • Danny McPherson, Verisign’s chief security officer. As well as .com, Verisign runs the two of the 13 root servers, including the master A-root. It’s running the boxes that sit at the top of the DNSSEC hierarchy.

It may be the first time SSAC has failed to reach a full-consensus opinion on a security matter. If it has ever published a dissenting opinion before, I certainly cannot recall it.

The big decision about whether to proceed or delay is expected to be made by the ICANN board during its retreat in Brussels, a three-day meeting that starts September 14.

Given that ICANN’s primary mission is “to ensure the stable and secure operation of the Internet’s unique identifier systems”, it could turn out to be one of ICANN’s biggest decisions to date.

ICANN CTO: no reason to delay KSK rollover

Kevin Murphy, August 15, 2018, Domain Tech

ICANN’s board of directors will be advised to go ahead with a key security change at the DNS root — “the so-called KSK rollover” — this October, according to the organization’s CTO.

“We don’t see any reason to postpone again,” David Conrad told DI on Monday.

If it does go ahead as planned, the rollover will see ICANN change the key-signing key that acts as the trust anchor for the whole DNSSEC-using internet, for the first time since DNSSEC came online in 2010.

It’s been delayed since last October after it emerged that misconfigurations elsewhere in the DNS cloud could see potentially millions of internet users see glitches when the key is rolled.

Ever since then, ICANN and others have been trying to figure out how many people could be adversely affected by the change, and to reduce that number to the greatest extent possible.

The impact has been tricky to estimate due to patchy data.

While it’s been possible to determine a number of resolvers — about 8,000 — that definitely are poorly configured, that only represents a subset of the total number. It’s also been hard to map that to endpoints due to “resolvers behind resolvers behind resolvers”, Conrad said.

“The problem here is that it’s sort of a subjective evaluation,” he said. “We can’t rely on the data were seeing. We’re seeing the resolvers but we’re not seeing the users behind the resolvers.”

Some say that the roll is still too risky to carry out without better visibility into the potential impact, but others say that more delays would lead to more networks and devices becoming DNSSEC-compatible, potentially leading to even greater problems after the eventual rollover.

ICANN knows of about 8,000 resolver IP addresses that are likely to stop working properly after the rollover, because they only support the current KSK, but that’s only counting resolvers that automatically report their status to the root using a relatively new internet standard. There’s a blind spot concerning resolvers that do not have that feature turned on.

ICANN has also had difficulty reaching out to the network operators behind these resolvers, with good contact information apparently only available for about a quarter of the affected IP addresses, Conrad said.

Right now, the best data available suggests that 0.05% of the internet’s population could see access issues after the October 11 rollover, according to Conrad.

That’s about two million people, but it’s 10 times fewer people than the 0.5% acceptable collateral damage threshold outlined in ICANN’s rollover plan.

The 0.05% number comes from research by APNIC, which used Google’s advertising system to place “zero-pixel ads” to check whether individual user endpoints were using compatible resolvers or not.

If problems do emerge October 11 the temporary solution is apparently quite quick to implement — network operators can simply turn off DNSSEC, assuming they know that’s what they’re supposed to do.

But still, if a million or two internet users could have their day ruined by the rollover, why do it at all?

It’s not as if the KSK is in any danger of being cracked any time soon. Conrad explained that a successful brute-force attack on the 2048-bit RSA key would take longer than the lifetime of the universe using current technology.

Rather, the practice of rolling the key every five years is to get network operators and developers accustomed to the idea that the KSK is not a permanent fixture that can be hard-coded into their systems, Conrad said.

It’s a problem comparable to new gTLD name collisions or the Y2K problem, instances where developers respectively hard-coded assumptions about valid TLDs or the century into their software.

ICANN has already been reaching out to the managers of open-source projects on repositories such as Github that have been seen to hard-code the current KSK into their software, Conrad said.

Separately, Wes Hardaker at the University of Southern California Information Sciences Institute discovered that a popular VPN client was misconfigured. Outreach to the developer saw the problem fixed, reducing the number of users who will be affected by the roll.

“What we’re trying to avoid is having these keys hardwired into firmware, so that that it would never be changeable,” he said. “The idea is if you exercise the infrastructure frequently enough, people will know the that the key is not permanent configuration, it’s not something embedded in concrete.”

One change that ICANN may want to make in future is to change the algorithm used to generate the KSK.

Right now it’s using RSA, but Conrad said it has downsides such as rather large signature size, which leads to heavier DNSSEC traffic. By switching to elliptical curve cryptography, signatures could be reduced by “orders of magnitude”, leading to a more efficient and slimline DNS infrastructure, Conrad said.

Last week, ICANN’s Root Server Stability Advisory Committee issued an advisory (pdf) that essentially gave ICANN the all-clear to go ahead with the roll.

The influential Security and Stability Advisory Committee has yet to issue its own advisory, however, despite being asked to do so by August 10.

Could SSAC be more cautious in its advice? We’ll have to wait and see, but perhaps not too long; the current plan is for the ICANN board to consider whether to go ahead with the roll during its three-day Brussels retreat, which starts September 14.

Digital archery ruled out for next new gTLD round

Kevin Murphy, July 10, 2018, Domain Tech

The oft-mocked “digital archery” system will not be making a return when ICANN finally starts taking more new gTLD applications.

That’s the current thinking of the ICANN community working group looking at subsequent application procedures.

Readers with long memories may recall digital archery as a hack for Californian gambling laws that ICANN org pressed for in 2012 as a way to form its 1,930 applications into an orderly queue for processing.

The idea was that applicants would fire off a bit of data to an ICANN site at a predetermined time and the applicants whose packets arrived closet to the target time, measured by the millisecond, would receive priority in the queue.

It was a bit like drop-catching, and the concept advanced to the stage where companies skilled in such things were offering digital archery services.

But after ICANN changed CEOs later that year, it turned out gambling wasn’t as illegal in California as former management thought it was. The org got itself a license to run a one-off lottery and sold tickets for $100 per application.

That’s now the preferred method for ordering the queue for the next rounds of applications, whenever those may be, according to last week’s Initial Report on the New gTLD Subsequent Procedures Policy Development Process.

Unlike 2012, the WG is proposing that portfolio applicants should be able to swap around their priority numbers according to their commercial interests.

So, if Donuts gets priority #1 for .crappy and #4,000 for .awesome, it would be able to switch priorities to get the better string evaluated earlier.

The WG is also not convinced that internationalized domain names, which received automatic priority in 2012, should get the same preferential treatment this time around.

That’s one of several questions it poses for the community in its public comment period.

While a better place in the evaluation queue had time-to-market advantages in 2012 — Donuts’ .guru sold a tonne of domains largely due to its first-mover status — that’s probably not going to be as big a deal next time around due to domainer skepticism about new gTLDs.

Could crypto solve the Whois crisis?

Kevin Murphy, July 10, 2018, Domain Tech

Could there be a cryptographic solution to some of the problems caused by GDPR’s impact on public Whois databases? Security experts think so.

The Anti-Phishing Working Group has proposed that hashing personal information and publishing it could help security researchers carry on using Whois to finger abusive domain names.

In a letter to ICANN, APWG recently said that such a system would allow registries and registrars to keep their customers’ data private, but would still enable researchers to identify names registered in bulk by spammers and the like.

“Redacting all registration records which were formerly publicly available has unintended and undesirable consequences to the very citizens and residents that electronic privacy legislation intends to protect,” the letter (pdf) says.

Under the proposed system, each registry or registrar would generate a private key for itself. For each Whois field containing private data, the data would be added to the key and hashed using a standard algorithm such as SHA-512.

For items such as physical addresses, all the address-related fields would be concatenated, with the key, before hashing the combined value.

The resulting hash — a long string of gibberish characters — would then be published in the public Whois instead of the [REDACTED] notice mandated by current ICANN policy.

Security researchers would then be able to identify domains belonging to the same purported registrant by searching for domains containing the same hash values.

It’s not a perfect solution. Because each registry or registrar would have their own key, the same registrant would have different hash values in different TLDs, so it would not be possible to search across TLDs.

But that may not be a huge problem, given that bad guys tend to bulk-register names in TLDs that have special offers on.

The hashing system may also be beneficial to interest groups such as trademark owners and law enforcement, which also look for registration patterns when tracking down abuse registrants.

The proposal would create implementation headaches for registries and registrars — which would actually have to build the crypto into their systems — and compliance challenges for ICANN.

The paper notes that ICANN would have to monitor its contracted parties — not all of which may necessarily be unfriendly to spammers — to make sure they’re hashing the data correctly.