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Spam is not our problem, major domain firms say ahead of ICANN 66

Kevin Murphy, October 21, 2019, Domain Policy

Eleven of the largest domain name registries and registrars have denied that spam is something they should have to deal with, unless it’s used to proliferate other types of abuse such as phishing or malware.

In a newly published “Framework to Address Abuse” (pdf), the companies attempt to define the term “DNS abuse” narrowly to capture only five (arguably only four and a half) specific types of online threat.

That abuse comprises malware, phishing, botnets, pharming and spam.

The companies agree that these are activities which registrars and registries “must” act upon.

But the document notes that not all spam is its responsibility, stating:

While Spam alone is not DNS Abuse, we include it in the five key forms of DNS Abuse when it is used as a delivery mechanism for the other four forms of DNS Abuse. In other words, generic unsolicited e-mail alone does not constitute DNS Abuse, but it would constitute DNS Abuse if that e-mail is part of a phishing scheme.

In other words, registrars and registries should not feel responsible for the billions of spams sent every day using their domains, unless the spam runs further malware, phishing, pharming or botnet abuse.

The signatories of the framework are Public Interest Registry, GoDaddy, Donuts, Tucows, Amazon Registry Services, Blacknight, Afilias, Name.com, Amazon Registrar, Neustar, and Nominet UK.

It may seem like they’ve presented a surprisingly narrow definition, but it’s in line with what current ICANN contracts dictate.

Neither the standard Registry Agreement nor Registrar Accreditation Agreement mention spam at all. Six years ago, ICANN specifically said that spam is “outside of ICANN’s scope and authority”.

Under the RA, registries have to oblige their registrars to ban registrants from “distributing malware, abusively operating botnets, phishing, piracy, trademark or copyright infringement, fraudulent or deceptive practices, counterfeiting or otherwise engaging in activity contrary to applicable law”.

They also have to maintain statistical reports on the amount of “pharming, phishing, malware, and botnets” in their zones, and provide those reports to ICANN upon demand. A recent audit found that 5% of registries, mainly dot-brands, were not doing this.

However, ICANN’s Domain Abuse Activity Reporting system, an effort to provide some transparency into how gTLDs are being abused, does in fact track spam. It does not track pharming, which is a fairly obscure and little-used form of DNS attack.

The DAAR report for September shows that spam constituted 73% of all tracked abuse.

The ICANN board of directors today identified DAAR as one of a few dozen priorities for the coming year.

Similarly, the cross-community working group known as the CCT Review Team, which was tasked with looking into how the new gTLD program has impacted competition and consumer trust, had harsh words for spam-friendly registries, and provided a definition of “DNS Security Abuse” that specifically included “high volume spam”.

The review recommended that ICANN introduce more measures to force contracted parties to deal with this type of abuse. This could include incentives for registries to clean up their zones and abuse volume thresholds that would automatically trigger compliance actions.

The new framework document comes in the context of an ongoing debate within the ICANN community about what “DNS abuse” is.

Two partners at Interisle, a security consultancy that often works for ICANN, recently guest-posted on DI to say that this term has become meaningless and should be abandoned in favor of “security threat”.

They argued that the definition should include not only spam, but also stuff like IP infringement, election interference, and terrorism.

But the main threat to contracted parties probably comes from the Governmental Advisory Committee, backed by law enforcement, which is pushing for stronger rules covering abusive content.

During a webinar last week, the US Federal Trade Commission, the FBI, and Europol argued that registries and registrars should be obliged to do more to combat abuse, specifically including spam.

“Whether or not you call it phishing or spam or whether it has a malware payload or not, ultimately it’s all email, and email remains the most common tool of cybercriminals to ensnare their victims, and that’s why we in law enforcement care about the domains used to send emails,” said Gabriel Andrews of the FBI’s Cyber Initiative Resource Fusion Unit, on the call.

Registries and registrars countered, using the same language found in the new framework, that generic spam is a content issue, and outside of their remit.

The two sides are set to clash again at ICANN’s annual general meeting in Montreal next month, in a November 6 face-to-face session.

While 11 entities signed the new framework, it’s arguably only nine companies. Name.com is owned by Donuts and both Amazon firms obviously have the same parent.

But it does include the two largest registrars, and registries responsible for running several hundred commercial gTLDs, dot-brands and ccTLDs.

While none of the signatories of the framework have a particular reputation for being spam-friendly, other companies in the industry — particularly some of the newest and cheapest new gTLDs — tend to attract spammers like flies to a turd.

Some of the signatories are perhaps surprising, given their past or ongoing behavior to tackle content-based abuse in their own zones.

Nominet, notably, takes down tens of thousands of domains ever year based on little more than police assurances that the domains are being used to sell counterfeit merchandise or infringe copyright.

The .uk registry also preemptively suspends domains based on algorithms that guess whether they’re likely to be seen as encouraging sexual violence or could be used in phishing attacks.

Donuts also has a trusted notifier relationship with the movie and music industries that has seen it take down dozens of names being used for mass copyright infringement.

PIR has previous endorsed, then unendorsed, the principal of a “UDRP for copyright”, a method of giving Big Content a way of going through due process to have domains taken or suspended.

Outside the spam issue, while the new registry-registrar framework says that registries and registrars should not get involved in matters related to web site content, it also says they nevertheless “should” (as opposed, one assumes based on the jargon usually found in internet standards, to “must”) suspend domains when they’re being used to distribute:

(1) child sexual abuse materials (“CSAM”); (2) illegal distribution of opioids online; (3) human trafficking; and (4) specific and credible incitements to violence.

These are exceptions because they constitute “the physical and often irreversible threat to human life”, the framework says.

Ultimately, this all boils down to a religious debate about where the line is drawn between “DNS” and “content”, it seems to me.

The contracted parties draw the line at threats to human life, whereas others want action on other forms of abuse largely because registries and registrars are in the best position to help.

Three big changes could be coming to .uk

Kevin Murphy, October 9, 2019, Domain Registries

Nominet wants to know what you thinking about three significant policy changes that could be implemented in the next year or so.

The .uk registry today published a consultation document covering two security-related changes and one related to expired domains.

First, Nominet wants to know if it should be allowed to preemptively block resolution on newly registered domains where it has “identified a high risk the domain will be used for phishing”.

It looks like more of a cosmetic policy change, given that the company is already blocking suspected phishing domains where the registrant fails to adequately verify their identity.

About 1,500 domains were blocked like this in the 12 months ending July 2019, Nominet says, on the basis of its Domain Watch program, which combines technical and manual oversight to identify phishy-looking names.

Second, Nominet want to know if it should display an standard informational web page when it blocks a domain on the basis of fraud, copyright infringement, and counterfeiting.

Currently, the company takes down tens of thousands of names every year on this basis, but the names are simply removed from the zone file and refuse to resolve.

Nominet’s friends in law enforcement reckon that allowing the the domains to instead resolve to a standard web page instead could help victims of fraudulent sites help with police investigations, and Nominet wants to know if you agree.

A side-effect of this would be that the names would remain in the zone, so we’d be able to see for the first time which names get suspended for fraud.

Third, Nominet wants to know whether it should start openly publishing drop-lists, the list of domains that have expired registrations and are about to become available.

This appears to be bad news for those registrars currently “excessively” pinging the registry to compile their own lists and get the jump on competitors when it comes to drop-catching valuable names for resale.

Nominet seems to want to see fewer dropped domains winding up in the hands of domainers, saying currently “not all dropping domains are registered and actively used by the new registrant, reducing the vibrancy of .UK domains”.

It’s proposing to give drop-lists just to registrars, or to publish them openly.

All three questions are open for comment until December 15.

Phishing still on the decline, despite Whois privacy

Kevin Murphy, March 5, 2019, Domain Policy

The number of detected phishing attacks almost halved last year, despite the fact that new Whois privacy rules have made it cheaper for attackers to hide their identities.

There were 138,328 attacks in the fourth quarter of 2018, according to the Anti-Phishing Working Group, down from 151,014 in Q3, 233,040 in Q2, and 263,538 in Q1.

That’s a huge decline from the start of the year, which does not seem to have been slowed up by the introduction in May of the General Data Protection Regulation and ICANN’s Temp Spec, which together force the redaction of most personal data from public Whois records.

The findings could be used by privacy advocates to demonstrate that Whois redaction has not lead to an increase in cybercrime, as their opponents had predicted.

But the data may be slightly misleading.

APWG notes that it can only count the attacks it can find, and that phishers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in how they attempt to avoid detection. The group said in a press release:

There is growing concern that the decline may be due to under-detection. The detection and documentation of some phishing URLs has been complicated by phishers obfuscating phishing URLs with techniques such as Web-spider deflection schemes – and by employing multiple redirects in spam-based phishing campaigns, which take users (and automated detectors) from an email lure through multiple URLs on multiple domains before depositing the potential victim at the actual phishing site.

It also speculates that criminals once involved in phishing may have moved on to “more specialized and lucrative forms of e-crime”.

The Q4 report (pdf) also breaks down phishing attacks by TLD, though comparisons here are difficult because APWG doesn’t always release this data.

The group found .com to still have the most phishing domains — 2,098 of the 4,485 unique domains used in attacks, or about 47%. According to Verisign’s own data, .com only has 40% market share of total registered domains.

But new, 2012-round gTLDs had phishing levels below their market share — 4.95% of phishing on a 6.83% share. This is actually up compared to the 3% recorded by APWG in Q3 2017, the most recent available data I could find.

Only two of the top 20 most-abused TLDs were new gTLDs — .xyz and .online, which had just 70 attack domains between them. That’s good news for .xyz, which in its early days saw 10 times as much phishing abuse.

After .com, the most-abused TLD was .pw, the ccTLD for Palau run by Radix as an unrestricted pseudo-gTLD. It had 374 attack domains in Q4, APWG said.

Other ccTLDs with relatively high numbers included several African zones run as freebies by Freenom, as well as the United Kingdom’s .uk and Brazil’s .br.

Phishing is only one form of cybercrime, of course, and ICANN’s own data shows that when you take into account spam, new gTLDs are actually hugely over-represented.

According to ICANN’s inaugural Domain Abuse Activity Reporting report (pdf), which covers January, over half of cybercrime domains are in the new gTLDs.

That’s almost entirely due to spam. One in 10 of the threats ICANN analyzed were spam, as identified by the likes of SpamHaus and SURBL. DAAR does not include ccTLD data.

The takeaway here appears to be that spammers love new gTLDs, but phishers are far less keen.

ICANN did not break down which gTLDs were the biggest offenders, but it did say that 52% of threats found in new gTLDs were found in just 10 new gTLDs.

This reluctance to name and shame the worst offenders prompted one APWG director, former ICANN senior security technologist Dave Piscitello, to harshly criticize his former employer in a personal blog post last month.

Donuts says DPML now covers “millions” of trademark variants as price rockets again

Kevin Murphy, October 1, 2018, Domain Registrars

Donuts has added more than a third to the price of its Domain Protected Marks List service, as it adds a new feature it says vastly increases the number of domains trademark owners can block.

The company has added homograph attack protection to DPML, so trademark-owning worrywarts can block variations of their brand that contain confusing non-Latin characters in addition to all the domain variants DPML already takes out of the available pool.

An example of a homograph, offered by Donuts, would be the domain xn--ggle-0nda.com, which can display as “gοοgle.com” and which contains two Cyrillic o-looking characters but is pretty much indistinguishable from “google.com”.

Donuts reckons this could mean “millions” of domains could be blocked, potentially preventing all kinds of phishing attacks, but one suspects the actual number per customer rather depends on how many potentially confusable Latin characters appear in the brands they want to protect.

DPML is a block service that prevents others from registering domains matching or closely matching customers’ trademarks. Previous additions to the service have included typo protection.

The new feature supports Cyrillic and Greek scripts, the two that Donuts says most homograph attacks use.

The company explained it to its registrars like this:

The Donuts system will analyze the content of each SLD identified in a DPML subscription, breaking it down to its individual characters. Each character is then “spun” against Unicode’s list of confusable characters and replaced with all viable IDN “glyphs” supported by Donuts TLDs. This spinning results in potentially millions of IDN permutations of a brand’s trademark which may be considered easily confusable to an end user. Each permutation is then blocked (removed from generally available inventory) just like other DPML labels, meaning it can only be registered via an “Override” by a party holding a trademark on the same label.

While this feature comes at no additional cost, Donuts is increasing its prices from January 1, the second big increase since DPML went live five years ago.

Donuts declined to disclose its wholesale price when asked, but I’ve seen registrars today disclose new pricing of $6,000 to $6,600 for a five-year block.

That compares to retail pricing in the $2,500 to $3,000 range back in 2013.

Hexonet said it will now charge its top-flight resellers $6,426 per create, compared to the $4,400 it started charging when DPML prices last went up at the start of last year. OpenProvider has also added two grand to its prices.

Donuts said the price increase also reflects the growth of its portfolio of gTLDs over the last few years. It now has 241, 25% more than at the last price increase.

Microsoft seizes “Russian election hacking” domains

Kevin Murphy, August 21, 2018, Domain Policy

Microsoft has taken control of six domains associated with a hacker group believed to be a part of Russian military intelligence, according to the company.

Company president Brad Smith blogged yesterday that Microsoft obtained a court order allowing it to seize the names, which it believes were to be used to attack institutions including the US Senate.

The domains in question look like they could be used in spear-phishing attacks. The are: my-iri.org, hudsonorg-my-sharepoint.com, senate.group, adfs-senate.services, adfs-senate.email and office365-onedrive.com.

Historical Whois records archived by DomainTools show they were registered last year behind WhoisGuard, the Panama-based privacy service. Now, of course, the Whois records are all redacted due to GDPR.

Smith said that Microsoft believes intended targets besides the Senate also include the International Republican Institute and the Hudson Institute, two conservative think-tanks.

The company believes, though it did not show evidence, that the domains were created by the group it calls “Strontium”.

Strontium is also known as “Fancy Bear”, among other names. It’s believed to be backed by the GRU, Russia’s intelligence agency.

It’s the same group alleged members of which Special Counsel Robert Mueller recently indicted as part of his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

“We have now used this approach 12 times in two years to shut down 84 fake websites associated with this group,” Smith said in his blog post.

He added that Microsoft does not know whether the domains have been used in an attack yet.

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.

Research finds homograph attacks on big brands rife

Kevin Murphy, January 22, 2018, Domain Tech

Apparent domain name homograph attacks against major brands are a “significant” problem, according to research from Farsight Security.

The company said last week that it scanned for such attacks against 125 well-known brands over the three months to January 10 and found 116,113 domains — almost 1,000 per brand.

Homographs are domains that look like other domains, often indistinguishable from the original. They’re usually used to phish for passwords to bank accounts, retailers, cryptocurrency exchanges, and so on.

They most often use internationalized domain names, mixing together ASCII and non-ASCII characters when displayed in browsers.

To the naked eye, they can look very similar to the original ASCII-only domains, but under the hood they’re actually encoded with Punycode with the xn-- prefix.

Examples highlighted by Farsight include baŋkofamerica.com, amazoṇ.com and fàcebook.com

Displayed as ASCII, those domains are actually xn--bakofamerica-qfc.com, xn--amazo-7l1b.com and xn--fcebook-8va.com.

Farsight gave examples including and excluding the www. subdomain in a blog post last week, but I’m not sure if it double-counted to get to its 116,113-domain total.

As you might imagine, almost all of this abuse is concentrated in .com and other TLDs that were around before 2012, judging by Farsight’s examples. That’s because the big brands are not using new gTLDs for their primary sites yet.

Farsight gave a caveat that it had not generally investigated the ownership of the homograph domains it found. It’s possible some of them are defensive registrations by brands that are already fully aware of the security risk they could present.

Hacked ICANN data for sale on black market

Kevin Murphy, February 22, 2017, Domain Services

If you were a user of ICANN’s Centralized Zone Data Service back in 2014 you may wish to think about changing some passwords today.

ICANN has confirmed that a bunch of user names and hashed passwords that were stolen in November 2014 have turned up for sale on the black market.

The batch reportedly contains credentials for over 8,000 users.

ICANN said yesterday:

ICANN recently became aware that some information obtained in the spear phishing incident we announced in 2014 is being offered for sale on underground forums. Our initial assessment is that it is old data and that no new breach of our systems has occurred. The data accessed in the 2014 incident breach included usernames and hashed passwords for our Centralized Zone Data System (CZDS). Once the theft was discovered, we reset all user passwords, and urged users to do the same for any other accounts where they used the same passwords.

While CZDS users have all presumably already changed their CZDS passwords, if they are still using that same password for a non-CZDS web site they may want to think about changing it.

ICANN first announced the hack back in December 2014.

It said at the time that the Government Advisory Committee’s wiki, and a selection of other less interesting pages, had also been compromised.

The attackers got in after a number of ICANN staffers fell for a spear-phishing attack — a narrowly targeted form of phishing that was specifically aimed at them.

If you email with ICANN staff with any regularity you will have noticed that for the last several months your email subject lines get prefixed [EXTERNAL] before the staffer receives them.

That’s to help avoid this kind of attack being successful again.

Phishing in new gTLDs up 1,000% but .com still the worst

Kevin Murphy, February 20, 2017, Domain Registries

The .com domain is still the runaway leader TLD for phishing, with new gTLDs still being used for a tiny minority of attacks, according to new research.

.com domains accounted for 51% of all phishing in 2016, despite only having 48% of the domains in the “general population”, according to the 2017 Phishing Trends & Intelligence Report
from security outfit PhishLabs.

But new gTLDs accounted for just 2% of attacks, despite separate research showing they have about 8% of the market.

New gTLDs saw a 1,000% increase in attacks on 2015, the report states.

The statistics are based on PhishLabs’ analysis of nearly one million phishing sites discovered over the course of the year and include domains that have been compromised, rather than registered, by attackers.

The company said:

Although the .COM top-level domain (TLD) was associated with more than half of all phishing sites in 2016, new generic TLDs are becoming a more popular option for phishing because they are low cost and can be used to create convincing phishing domains.

There are a few reasons new gTLDs are gaining traction in the phishing ecosystem. For one, some new gTLDs are incredibly cheap to register and may be an inexpensive option for phishers who want to have more control over their infrastructure than they would with a compromised website. Secondly, phishers can use some of the newly developed gTLDs to create websites that appear to be more legitimate to potential victims.

Indeed, the cheapest new gTLDs are among the worst for phishing — .top, .xyz, .online, .club, .website, .link, .space, .site, .win and .support — according to the report.

But the numbers show that new gTLDs are significantly under-represented in phishing attacks.

According to separate research from CENTR, there were 309.4 million domains in existence at the end of 2016, of which about 25 million (8%) were new gTLDs.

Yet PhishLabs reports that new gTLD domains were used for only about 2% of attacks.

CENTR statistics have .com with a 40% share of the global domain market, with PhishLabs saying that .com is used in 51% of attacks.

The difference in the market share statistics between the two sets of research is likely due to the fact that CENTR excludes .tk from its numbers.

Again, because PhishLabs counts hacked sites — in fact it says the “vast majority” were hacked — we should probably exercise caution before attributing blame to registries.

But PhishLabs said in its report:

When we see a TLD that is over-represented among phishing sites compared to the general population, it may be an indication that it is more apt to being used by phishers to maliciously register domains for the purposes of hosting phishing content. Some TLDs that met these criteria in 2016 included .COM, .BR, .CL, .TK, .CF, .ML, and .VE.

By far the worst ccTLD for phishing was Brazil’s .br, with 6% of the total, according to the report.

Also notable were .uk, .ru, .au, .pl, and .in, each with about 2% of the total, PhishLabs said.

ICANN joins anti-phishing group board

Kevin Murphy, January 27, 2017, Domain Policy

ICANN’s VP of security has joined the board of directors of the Anti-Phishing Working Group.

Dave Piscitello is one of three new APWG board members, arriving as the group expands its board from two people to five.

APWG said the expansion “is recognition of the growing complexity and scale of Internet crime today and the challenges in responding to this global threat.”

In a press release, it noted that targeted phishing attacks are said to be the root cause of the data thefts that may or may not have influenced the US presidential election last year.

The other two new directors are Brad Wardman of PayPal and Pat Cain of The Cooper Cain Group, a security consulting firm (a different bloke to the similarly named Pat Kane of Verisign).

APWG is an independent, public-private coalition that collects and publishes data about phishing attack trends and advice for how to defend against them.

Part of this work entails tracking how many domain names are involved in phishing, and in which TLDs.

The APWG board also includes chair David Jevans of Proofpoint and secretary-general Peter Cassidy.