One of ICANN’s Seven Secret Key-Holders To The Internet got taken out as part of an elaborate heist or something on American TV this week.
In tense scenes, a couple of secret agents or something with guns were forced to break into one of ICANN’s quarterly root zone key signing ceremonies to prevent a hacker or terrorist or something from something something, something something.
The stand-off came after the secret agents or whatever discovered that a hacker called Mayhew had poisoned a guy named Adler, causing a heart attack, in order to secure his position as a replacement ICANN key-holder and hijack the ceremony.
This all happened on a TV show called Blacklist: Redemption that aired in the US March 16.
I’d be lying if I said I fully understood what was supposed to be going on in the episode, not being a regular viewer of the series, but here’s the exposition from the beginning of the second act.
Botox Boss Lady: Seven keys control the internet? That can’t be possible.
Neck Beard Exposition Guy: They don’t control what’s on it, just how to secure it. All domain names have an assigned number. But who assigns the numbers?
Soap Opera Secret Agent: Key holders?
Neck Beard Exposition Guy: Seven security experts randomly selected by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
Bored Secret Agent: Max Adler’s wife mentioned a key ceremony.
Neck Beard Exposition Guy: Yeah, four times a year the key holders meet to generate a master key and to assign new numbers, to make life difficult for hackers who want to direct folks to malicious sites or steal their credit card information.
Botox Boss Lady: But by being at the ceremony, Mayhew gets around those precautions?
Neck Beard Exposition Guy: Oh, he does more than that. He can route any domain name to him.
That’s the genuine dialogue. ICANN, jarringly, isn’t fictionalized in the way one might usually expect from US TV drama.
The scene carries on to explain the elaborate security precautions ICANN has put in place around its key-signing ceremonies, including biometrics, smart cards and the like.
The fast-moving show then cuts to the aforementioned heist situation, in which our villain of the week takes an ICANN staffer hostage before using the root’s DNSSEC keys to somehow compromise a government data drop and download a McGuffin.
Earlier this week I begged Matt Larson, ICANN’s VP of research and a regular participant in the ceremonies (which are real) to watch the show and explain to me what bits reflect reality and what was plainly bogus.
“There are some points about it that are quite close to how the how the root KSK administration works,” he said, describing the depiction as “kind of surreal”.
“But then they take it not one but two steps further. The way the ceremony happens is not accurate, the consequences of what happens at the ceremony are not accurate,” he added.
“They talk about how at the ceremony we generate a key, well that’s not true. It’s used for signing a new key. And then they talk about how as a result of the ceremony anyone can intercept any domain name anywhere and of course that’s not true.”
The ceremonies are used to sign the keys that make end-to-end DNSSEC possible. By signing the root, DNSSEC resolvers have a “chain of trust” that goes all the way to the top of the DNS hierarchy.
The root keys just secure the bit between the root at the TLDs. Compromising them would not enable a hacker to immediately start downloading data from the site of his choosing, as depicted in the show. He’d then have to go on to compromise the rest of the chain.
“You’d have to create an entire path of spoofed zones to who you wanted to impersonate,” Larson said. “Your fake root zone would have to delegate to a fake TLD zone to a fake SLD zone and so on so you could finally convince someone they were going to the address that you wanted.”
“If you could somehow compromise the processes at the root, that alone doesn’t give you anything,” he said.
But the show did present a somewhat realistic description of how the ceremony rooms (located in Virginia and California, not Manhattan as seen on TV) are secured.
Among other precautions, the facilities are secured with smart cards and PINs, retina scans for ICANN staff, and have reinforced walls to prevent somebody coming in with a sledgehammer, Larson said.
Blacklist: Redemption airs on Thursday nights on NBC in the US, but I wouldn’t bother if I were you.
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’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.
ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee has told ICANN it needs to do more to address the problem of name collisions before it approves any more new gTLDs.
In its latest advisory (pdf), published just before Christmas, SSAC says ICANN is not doing enough to coordinate with other technical bodies that are asserting authority over “special use” TlDs.
The SAC090 paper appears to be an attempt to get ICANN to further formalize its relationship with the Internet Engineering Task Force as it pertains to reserved TLDs:
The SSAC recommends that the ICANN Board of Directors take appropriate steps to establish definitive and unambiguous criteria for determining whether or not a syntactically valid domain name label could be a top-level domain name in the global DNS.
Pursuant to its finding that lack of adequate coordination among the activities of different groups contributes to domain namespace instability, the SSAC recommends that the ICANN Board of Directors establish effective means of collaboration on these issues with relevant groups outside of ICANN, including the IETF.
The paper speaks to at least two ongoing debates.
First, should ICANN approve .home and .corp?
These two would-be gTLDs were applied for by multiple parties in 2012 but have been on hold since August 2013 following an independent report into name collisions.
Names collisions are generally cases in which ICANN delegates a TLD to the public DNS that is already broadly used on private networks. This clash can result in the leakage of private data.
.home and .corp are by a considerable margin the two strings most likely to be affected by this problem, with .mail also seeing substantial volume.
But in recent months .home and .corp applicants have started to put pressure on ICANN to resolve the issue and release their applications from limbo.
The second incident the SSAC paper speaks to is the reservation in 2015 of .onion
If you’re using a browser on the privacy-enhancing Tor network, .onion domains appear to you to work exactly the same as domains in any other gTLDs, but under the hood they don’t use the public ICANN-overseen DNS.
The IETF gave .onion status as a “Special Use Domain“, in order to prevent future collisions, which caused ICANN to give it the same restricted status as .example, .localhost and .test.
But there was quite a lot of hand-wringing within the IETF before this status was granted, with some worrying that the organization was stepping on ICANN’s authority.
The SSAC paper appears to be designed at least partially to encourage ICANN to figure out how much it should take its lead from the IETF in this respect. It asks:
The IETF is an example of a group outside of ICANN that maintains a list of “special use” names. What should ICANN’s response be to groups outside of ICANN that assert standing for their list of special names?
For members of the new gTLD industry, the SSAC paper may be of particular importance because it raises the possibility of delays to subsequent rounds of the program if ICANN does not spell out more formally how it handles special use TLDs.
“The SSAC recommends that ICANN complete this work before making any decision to add new TLD names to the global DNS,” it says.
Amazon has reversed, at least temporarily, its decision to yank its free list of the world’s most popular domains, after an outcry from researchers.
The daily Alexa list, which contains the company’s estimate of the world’s top 1 million domains by traffic, suddenly disappeared late last week.
The list was popular with researchers in fields such as internet security. Because it was free, it was widely used.
DI PRO uses the list every day to estimate the relative popularity of top-level domains.
After deleting the list, Amazon directed users to its Amazon Web Services portal, which had started offering the same data priced at $0.0025 per URL.
That’s not cheap. The cost of obtaining same data suddenly leaped from nothing to $912,500 per year, or $2,500 per day.
That’s beyond the wallets, I suspect, of almost every Alexa user, especially the many domain name tools providers (including yours truly) that relied on the data to estimate domain popularity.
Even scaling back usage to the top 100,000 URLs would be prohibitively expensive for most researchers.
While Amazon is of course free to price its data at whatever it thinks it is worth, no notice was given that the file was to be deleted, scuppering without warning goodness knows how many ongoing projects.
Some users spoke out on Twitter.
The quiet death of the @Alexa_Support top million sites is a grievous blow to internet researchers everywhere. $2500 per pull now.
— April King (@aprilmpls) November 21, 2016
Removing the top 1M list is a HUGE mistake. It was extremely useful to assess the impact of new security vulnerabilities. 🙁 @Alexa_Support
— Benjamin Beurdouche (@beurdouche) November 22, 2016
@Alexa_Support I'm disappointed, but I hope you reconsider. The Top 1M list is a standard reference in research. It's simply irreplaceable.
— Santiago Zanella (@xEFFFFFFF) November 22, 2016
I spent most of yesterday figuring out how to quickly rejigger DI PRO to cope with the new regime, but it seems I may have been wasting my time.
After an outcry from fellow researchers, Amazon has restored the free list. It said on Twitter:
Thanks to customer feedback, the top 1M sites is temporarily available again. We’ll provide notice before updating the file in the future
— Alexa Support (@Alexa_Support) November 22, 2016
It seems clear that the key word here is “temporarily”, and that the the restoration of the file may primarily be designed to give researchers more time to seek alternatives or wrap up their research.