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Phishing domains double in 2013

Kevin Murphy, September 20, 2013, Domain Tech

The number of domain names registered for phishing attacks doubled in the first half of the year, according to the latest data from the Anti-Phishing Working Group.

The APWG identified 53,685 phishing domains, of which 12,173 are believed to have been registered by phishers. The remainder belonged to compromised web servers.

This 12,173 number — up from 5,835 in the year-ago period — is the important one for the domain name industry, as it is there that registries and registrars have the ability to make a difference.

“The increase is due to a sudden uptick in domain registrations by Chinese phishers,” the APWG said in its Domain Name Use and Trends 1H2013 report (pdf). Chinese targets accounted for 8,240 (68%) of the registered domains.

This works out to about 66 maliciously registered domains per day on average, or less than half a percent of the total number of domains registered across all TLDs daily.

According to the APWG, the number of phishing domains that actually contain a brand or a variation of a brand is smaller still, at 1,244. That’s flat on the second half of 2012.

It works out to about seven new trademark-infringing phishing domain names per day that a brand owner somewhere in the world (though probably China) has to deal with.

APWG reiterated what it has said in previous reports:

most maliciously registered domain names offered nothing to confuse a potential victim. Placing brand names or variations thereof in the domain name itself is not a favored tactic, since brand owners are proactively scanning Internet zone files for their brand names. As we have observed in the past, the domain name itself usually does not matter to phishers, and a domain name of any meaning, or no meaning at all, in any TLD, will usually do. Instead, phishers often place brand names in subdomains or subdirectories.

.CLUB offers solution to name collision risks

Kevin Murphy, September 16, 2013, Domain Tech

.CLUB Domains has come up with a simple workaround for its applied-for .club gTLD being categorized as risky by ICANN.

The company wants to reserve the top 50 .club domains that currently see DNS root traffic, so that if and when .club goes live the impact on organizations that use .club internally will be greatly reduced.

It’s not a wholly original idea, but .CLUB seems to be unique at the moment in that it actually knows what those 50 strings are, having commissioned an Interisle Consulting report of its proposed gTLD.

You’ll recall that Interisle is the company that ICANN commissioned to quantify the name collisions problem in the first place.

Its report is what ICANN used to categorize all applied-for gTLD strings into low, high and “uncalculated” risks, putting .club into the uncalculated category, delaying it by months.

(Interisle was at pains to point out in its report for .CLUB that it is not making any recommendations, interpreting the data, or advocating any solutions. Still, nice work if you can get it.)

By reserving the top 50 clashes — presumably in such a way that they will continue to return error responses after .club is delegated — .CLUB says .club would slip into ICANN’s definition of a low-risk string.

In a letter to ICANN (pdf) sent today, .CLUB chief technology officer Dirk Bhagat wrote:

blocking the 50 SLD strings from registration would prevent 52,647 out of the 89,533 queries from a potential collision (58.88%). After blocking the top 50 strings as SLD strings, only 36,886 (41.12%) queries remain, which is 12,114 fewer invalid queries at the root than .engineering, which ICANN classified as a low risk gTLD.

He adds that a further chunk of remaining SLDs are random strings that appear to have been created by Google’s Chrome browser and, many say, pose no risk of name collisions, reducing the risk further.

It’s hard to argue with the logic there, other than to say that ICANN’s categorization system itself has already come in for heavy criticism for drawing unjustified, arbitrary lines.

The list of domains .CLUB proposes to block is pretty interesting, including some strings that appear to be trademarks, the names of likely .club registrants, or potentially premium names.

Verisign targets bank claims in name collisions fight

Kevin Murphy, September 15, 2013, Domain Tech

Verisign has rubbished the Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s claim that its dot-brand gTLD, .cba, is safe.

In a lengthy letter to ICANN today, Verisign senior vice president Pat Kane said that, contrary to CBA’s claims, the bank is only responsible for about 6% of the traffic .cba sees at the root.

It’s the latest volley in the ongoing fight about the security risks of name collisions — the scenario where an applied-for gTLD string is already in broad use on internal networks.

CBA’s application for .cba has been categorized as “uncalculated risk” by ICANN, meaning it faces more reviews and three to six months of delay while its risk profile is assessed.

But in a letter to ICANN last month, CBA said “the cause of the name collision is primarily from CBA internal systems” and “it is within the CBA realm of control to detect and remediate said systems”.

The bank was basically claiming that its own computers use DNS requests for .cba already, and that leakage of those requests onto the internet was responsible for its relatively high risk profile.

At the time we doubted that CBA had access to the data needed to draw this conclusion and Verisign said today that a new study of its own “shows without a doubt that CBA’s initial conclusions are incorrect”.

Since the publication of Interisle Consulting’s independent review into root server error traffic — which led to all applied-for strings being split into risk categories — Verisign has evidently been carrying out its own study.

While Interisle used data collected from almost all of the DNS root servers, Verisign’s seven-week study only looked at data gathered from the A-root and J-root, which it manages.

According to Verisign, .cba gets roughly 10,000 root server queries per day — 504,000 in total over the study window — and hardly any of them come from the bank itself.

Most appear to be from residential apartment complexes in Chiba, Japan, where network admins seem to have borrowed the local airport code — also CBA — to address local devices.

About 80% of the requests seen come from devices using DNS Service Discovery services such as Bonjour, Verisign said.

Bonjour is an Apple-created technology that allows computers to use DNS to automatically discover other LAN-connected devices such as printers and cameras, making home networking a bit simpler.

Another source of the .cba traffic is McAfee’s antivirus software, made by Intel, which Verisign said uses DNS to check whether code is virus-free before executing it.

While error traffic for .cba was seen from 170 countries, Verisign said that Japan — notable for not being Australia — was the biggest source, with almost 400,000 queries (79% of the total). It said:

Our measurement study reveals evidence of a substantial Internet-connected infrastructure in Japan that lies beneath the surface of the public-facing internet, which appears to rely on the non-resolution of the string .CBA.

This infrastructure appear hierarchical and seems to include municipal and private administrative and service networks associated with electronic resource management for office and residential building facilities, as well as consumer devices.

One apartment block in Chiba is is responsible for almost 5% of the daily .cba queries — about 500 per day on average — according to Verisign’s letter, though there were 63 notable sources in total.

ICANN’s proposal for reducing the risk of these name collisions causing problems would require CBA, as the registry, to hunt down and warn organizations of .cba’s impending delegation.

Verisign reiterates the point made by RIPE NCC last month: this would be quite difficult to carry out.

But it does seem that Verisign has done a pretty good job tracking down the organizations that would be affected by .cba being delegated.

The question that Verisign’s letter and presentation does not address is: what would happen to these networks if .cba was delegated?

If .cba is delegated, what will McAfee’s antivirus software do? Will it crash the user’s computer? Will it allow unsafe code to run? Will it cause false positives, blocking users from legitimate content?

Or will it simply fail gracefully, causing no security problems whatsoever?

Likewise, what happens when Bonjour expects .cba to not exist and it suddenly does? Do Apple computers start leaking data about the devices on their local network to unintended third parties?

Or does it, again, cause no security problems whatsoever?

Without satisfactory answers to those questions, maybe name collisions could be introduced by ICANN with little to no effect, meaning the “risk” isn’t really a risk at all.

Answering those questions will of course take time, which means delay, which is not something most applicants want to hear right now.

Verisign’s study targeted CBA because CBA singled itself out by claiming to be responsible for the .cba error traffic, not because CBA is a client of rival registry Afilias.

The bank can probably thank Verisign for its study, which may turn out to be quite handy.

Still, it would be interesting to see Verisign conduct a similar study on, say, .windows (Microsoft), .cloud (Symantec) or .bank (Financial Services Roundtable), which are among the 35 gTLDs with “uncalculated” risk profiles that Verisign promised to provide back-end registry services for before it decided that new gTLDs were dangerous.

You can read Verisign’s letter and presentation here. I’ve rotated the PDF to make the presentation more readable here.

Artemis plans name collision conference next week

Kevin Murphy, August 16, 2013, Domain Tech

Artemis Internet, the NCC Group subsidiary applying for .secure, is to run a day-long conference devoted to the topic of new gTLD name collisions in San Francisco next week.

Google, PayPal and DigiCert are already lined up to speak at the event, and Artemis says it expects 60 to 70 people, many of them from major new gTLD applicants, to show up.

The free-to-attend TLD Security Forum will discuss the recent Interisle Consulting report into name collisions, which compared the problem in some cases to the Millennium Bug and recommended extreme caution when approving new gTLDs.

Brad Hill, head of ecosystem security at PayPal, will speak to “Paypal’s Concerns and Recommendations on new TLDs”, according to the agenda.

That’s notable because PayPal is usually positioned as being aligned with the other side of the debate — it’s the only company to date Verisign has been able to quote from when it tries to show support for its own concerns about name collisions.

The Interisle report led to ICANN recommending months of delay for hundreds of new gTLD strings — basically every string that already gets more daily root server error traffic than legitimate queries for .sj, the existing TLD with the fewest look-ups.

The New TLD Applicants Group issued its own commentary on these recommendations, apparently drafted by Artemis CTO Alex Stamos, earlier this week, calling for all strings except .home and .corp to be treated as low risk.

NTAG also said in its report that it has been discussing with SSL certificate authorities ways to potentially speed up risk-mitigation for the related problem of internal name certificate collisions, so it’s also notable that DigiCert’s Dan Timpson is slated to speak at the Forum.

The event may be webcast for those unable to attend in person, according to Artemis. If it is, DI will be “there”.

On the same topic, ICANN yesterday published a video interview with DNS inventor Paul Mockapetris, in which he recounted some name collision anecdotes from the Mesolithic period of the internet. It’s well worth a watch.

Verisign confirms .gov downtime, blames algorithm

Kevin Murphy, August 15, 2013, Domain Tech

Verisign this morning confirmed yesterday’s reports that the .gov top-level domain went down for some internet users due to a DNSSEC problem, which it said was related to an algorithm change.

In a posting to various mailing lists, Verisign principal engineer Duane Wessels said:

On the morning of August 14, a relatively small number of networks may have experienced an operational disruption related to the signing of the .gov zone. In preparation for a previously announced algorithm rollover, a software defect resulted in publishing the .gov zone signed only with DNSSEC algorithm 8 keys rather than with both algorithm 7 and 8. As a result .gov name resolution may have failed for validating recursive name servers. Upon discovery of the issue, Verisign took prompt action to restore the valid zone.

Verisign plans to proceed with the previously announced .gov algorithm rollover at the end of the month with the zone being signed with both algorithms for a period of approximately 10 days.

This clarifies that the problem was slightly different to what had been assumed yesterday.

It was related to change of the cryptographic algorithm used to create .gov’s DNSSEC keys, a relatively rare event, rather than a scheduled key rollover, which is a rather more frequent occurrence.

The problem would only have made .gov domains (and consequently web sites, email, etc) inaccessible for users of networks where DNSSEC validation is strictly enforced, which is quite small.

The US ISP with the strongest support for DNSSEC is Comcast. Since turning on its validators it has reported dozens of instances of DNSSEC failing — mostly in second-level .gov domains, where DNSSEC is mandated by US policy.

On two other occasions Comcast has blogged about the whole .gov TLD failing DNSSEC validation due to problems keeping keys up to date.

The general problem is widespread enough, and the impact severe enough, that Comcast has had to create an entirely new technology to prevent borked key rollovers making web sites go dark for its customers.

Called Negative Trust Anchors, it’s basically a Band-Aid that allows the ISP to deliberately ignore DNSSEC on a given domain while it waits for that domain’s owner to sort out its key problem.

The technology was created following the widely reported nasa.gov outage last year.

It’s really little wonder that so few organizations are interested in deploying DNSSEC today.

Yesterday’s .gov problem may have been minor, lasting only an hour or two, but had the affected TLD been .com, and had DNSSEC deployment been more widespread, everyone on the planet would have noticed.

Under ICANN contract, DNSSEC is mandatory for new gTLDs at the top level, but not the second level.

Reports: .gov fails due to DNSSEC error

Kevin Murphy, August 14, 2013, Domain Tech

The .gov top-level domain suffered a DNSSEC problem today and was unavailable to some internet users, according to reports.

According to mailing lists and the SANS Internet Storm Center, it appeared that .gov rolled one of its DNSSEC keys without telling the root zone about the update.

This meant that anyone whose DNS servers do strict DNSSEC validation — a relatively small number of networks — would have been unable to access .gov web sites, email and other resources.

As a matter of policy, all second-level .gov domains have to be DNSSEC-signed.

The problem was corrected quite quickly — looks like within an hour or two — but as SANS noted, caching issues may prolong the impact.

Both .gov and the root zone are managed by Verisign, which isn’t on the best of terms with the US government at the moment.

Dotless domains “dangerous”, security study says

Kevin Murphy, August 6, 2013, 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.

NTIA alarmed as Verisign hints that it will not delegate new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, August 5, 2013, Domain Tech

Verisign has escalated its war against competition by telling its government masters that it is not ready to add new gTLDs to the DNS root, raising eyebrows at NTIA.

The company told the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration in late May that the lack of uniform monitoring across the 13 root servers means it would put internet security and stability at risk to start delegating new gTLDs now.

In response, the NTIA told Verisign that its recent position on DNS security is “troubling”. It demanded confirmation that Verisign is not planning to block new gTLDs from being delegated.

The letters (pdf and pdf) were published by ICANN over the weekend, over two months after the first was sent.

Verisign senior VP Pat Kane wrote in the May letter:

we strongly believe certain issues have not been addressed and must be addressed before any root zone managers, including Verisign, are ready to implement the new gTLD Program.

We want to be clearly on record as reporting out this critical information to NTIA unequivocally as we believe a complete assessment of the critical issues remain unaddressed which left unremediated could jeopardize the security and stability of the DNS.

we strongly recommend that the previous advice related to this topic be implemented and the capability for root server system monitoring, instrumentation, and management capabilities be developed and operationalized prior to beginning delegations.

Kane’s concerns were first outlined by Verisign in its March 2013 open letter to ICANN, which also expressed serious worries about issues such as internal name collisions.

Verisign is so far the only root server operator to publicly express concerns about the lacking of coordinated monitoring, and many people believe that the company is simply desperately trying to delay competition for its $800 million .com business for as long as possible.

These people note that in early November 2012, Verisign signed a joint letter with ICANN and NTIA that said:

the Root Zone Partners are able to process at least 100 new TLDs per week and will commit the necessary resources to meet all root zone management volume increases associated with the new gTLD program

That letter was signed before NTIA stripped Verisign of its right to increase .com prices every year, depriving it of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of additional revenue.

Some say that Verisign is raising spurious security concerns now purely because it’s worried about its bottom line.

NTIA is beginning to sound like one of these critics. In its response to the May 30 letter, sent by NTIA and published by ICANN on Saturday, deputy associate administrator Vernita Harris wrote:

NTIA and VeriSign have historically had a strong working relationship, but inconsistencies in VeriSign’s position in recent months are troubling… NTIA fully expects VeriSign to process change requests when it receives an authorization to delegate a new gTLD. So that there will be no doubt on this point, please provide me a written confirmation no later than August 16, 2013 that VeriSign will process change requests for the new gTLD program when authorized to delegate a new gTLD.

Harris said that a system is already in place that would allow the emergency rollback of the root zone, basically ‘un-delegating’ any gTLD that proves to cause a security or stability problem.

This would be “sufficient for the delegation of new gTLDs”, she wrote.

Could Verisign block new gTLDs?

It’s worth a reminder at this point that ICANN’s power over the DNS root is something of a facade.

Verisign, as operator of the master A root server, holds the technical keys to the kingdom. Under its NTIA contract, it only processes changes to the root — such as adding a TLD — when NTIA tells it to.

NTIA in practice merely passes on the recommendations of IANA, the department within ICANN that has the power to ask for changes to the root zone, also under contract with NTIA.

Verisign or NTIA in theory could refuse to delegate new gTLDs — recall that when .xxx was heading to the root the European Union asked NTIA to delay the delegation.

In practice, it seems unlikely that either party would stand in the way of new gTLDs at the root, but the Verisign rhetoric in recent months suggests that it is in no mood to play nicely.

To refuse to delegate gTLDs out of commercial best interests would be seen as irresponsible, however, and would likely put its role as custodian of the root at risk.

That said, if Verisign turns out to be the lone voice of sanity when it comes to DNS security, it is ICANN and NTIA that will ultimately look like they’re the irresponsible parties.

What’s next?

Verisign now has until August 16 to confirm that it will not make trouble. I expect it to do so under protest.

According to the NTIA, ICANN’s Root Server Stability Advisory Committee is currently working on two documents — RSSAC001 and RSSAC002 — that will outline “the parameters of the basis of an early warning system” that will address Verisign’s concerns about root server management.

These documents are likely to be published within weeks, according to the NTIA letter.

Meanwhile, we’re also waiting for the publication of Interisle Consulting’s independent report into the internal name collision issue, which is expected to recommend that gTLDs such as .corp and .home are put on hold. I’m expecting this to be published any day now.

Two banks go down after forgetting to renew domains

Kevin Murphy, July 31, 2013, Domain Tech

Two UK banks suffered downtime over the weekend after apparently failing to renew their domain name registrations.

Clydesdale Bank and Yorkshire Bank, which offer online banking services at cbonline.co.uk and ybonline.co.uk respectively, both blamed a “systems update” for the downtime.

But some customers reported seeing a registrar’s renewal page when they attempted to access the sites, and others are reportedly still seeing difficulties consistent with DNS propagation delays.

Both domain names have expiry dates of July 26, according to Whois records.

Thankfully, the banks, both of which are owned by National Australia Bank, managed to retain control of their domains. If they’d fallen into third party hands things could have been a lot worse.

Combined, the banks have revenue of a couple of billion pounds.

“Risky” gTLDs could be sacrificed to avoid delay

Kevin Murphy, July 20, 2013, Domain Tech

Google and other members of the New gTLD Applicant Group are happy to let ICANN put their applications on hold in response to security concerns raised by Verisign.

During the ICANN 46 Public Forum in Durban on Thursday, NTAG’s Alex Stamos — CTO of .secure applicant Artemis — said that agreement had been reached that about half a dozen applications could be delayed:

NTAG has consensus that we are willing to allow these small numbers of TLDs that have a significant real risk to be delayed until technical implementations can be put in place. There’s going to be no objection from the NTAG on that.

While he didn’t name the strings, he was referring to gTLDs such as .home and .corp, which were highlighted earlier in the week as having large amounts of error traffic at the DNS root.

There’s a worry, originally expressed by Verisign in April and independent consultant Interisle this week, that collisions between new gTLDs and widely-used internal network names will lead to data leakage and other security problems.

Google’s Jordyn Buchanan also took the mic at the Public Forum to say that Google will gladly put its uncontested application for .ads — which Interisle says gets over 5 million root queries a day — on hold until any security problems are mitigated.

Two members of the board described Stamos’ proposal as “reasonable”.

Both Stamos and ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade indirectly criticised Verisign for the PR campaign it has recently built around its new gTLD security concerns, which has led to somewhat one-sided articles in the tech press and mainstream media such as the Washington Post.

Stamos said:

What we do object to is the use of the risk posed by a small, tiny, tiny fraction — my personal guess would be six, seven, eight possible name spaces that have any real impact — to then tar the entire project with a big brush. For contracted parties to go out to the Washington Post and plant stories about the 911 system not working because new TLDs are turned on is completely irresponsible and is clearly not about fixing the internet but is about undermining the internet and undermining new gTLDs.

Later, in response to comments on the same topic from the Association of National Advertisers, which suggested that emergency services could fail if new gTLDs go live, Chehade said:

Creating an unnecessary alarm is equally irresponsible… as publicly responsible members of one community, let’s measure how much alarm we raise. And in the trademark case, with all due respect it ended up, frankly, not looking good for anyone at the end.

That’s a reference to the ANA’s original campaign against new gTLDs, which wound up producing not much more than a lot of column inches about an utterly pointless Congressional hearing in late 2011.

Chehade and the ANA representative this time agreed publicly to work together on better terms.