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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.

GoDaddy and DomainTools scrap over Whois access

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2018, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy has seriously limited DomainTools’ access to its customers’ Whois records, pissing off DomainTools.

DomainTools CEO Tim Chen this week complained to DI that its access to Whois has been throttled back significantly in recent months, making it very difficult to keep its massive database of domain information up to date.

Chen said that DomainTools is currently only able to access GoDaddy’s Whois over port 43 at about 2% of the rate it had previously.

He said that this has been going on for about six months and that the market-leading registrar has been unresponsive to its requests to have previous levels restored.

“By throttling access to the data by 98% they’re defeating the ability of security practitioners to get data on GoDaddy domains,” Chen said. “It’s particularly troublesome because they [GoDaddy] are such a big part of DNS.”

“We have customers who say the quality of GoDaddy data is just degrading across the board, either through direct look-ups or in some of the DomainTools products themselves,” he said.

DomainTools customers include security professionals trying to hunt down the source of attacks and intellectual property interests trying to locate pirates and cybersquatters.

GoDaddy today confirmed to DI that it has been throttling DomainTools’ Whois access, and said that it’s part of ongoing anti-spam measures.

In recent years there’s been an increase in the amount of spam — usually related to web design, hosting, and SEO — sent to recent domain registrants using email addresses harvested from new Whois records.

GoDaddy, as the market-share leader in retail domain sales, takes a tonne of flak from customers who, unaware of standard Whois practice, think the company is selling their personal information to spammers.

This kind of Twitter exchange is fairly common on GoDaddy’s feed:

While GoDaddy is not saying that DomainTools is directly responsible for this kind of activity, throttling its port 43 traffic is one way the company is trying to counter the problem, VP of policy James Bladel told DI tonight.

“Companies like [DomainTools] present a challenge,” he said. “While we may know these folks, we don’t know who their customers are.”

But that’s just a part of the issue. GoDaddy was also concerned about the amount of resources DomainTools was consuming, and its own future legal responsibilities under the European Union’s forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation.

“When [Chen] says they’re down to a fraction or a percentage of what they had previously, well what they had previously was they were updating and archiving Whois almost in real time,” Bladel said. “And that’s not going to fly.”

“That is not only, we feel, not congruent with our responsibilities to our customers’ data, but it’s also, later on down the road, exactly the kind of thing that GDPR and other regulations are designed to stop,” he said.

GDPR is the EU law that, when it fully kicks in in May, gives European citizens much more rights over the sharing and processing of their private data.

Bladel added that DomainTools is still getting more Whois access than other parties using port 43.

“They have a level of access that is much, much higher than what they would normally have as a registrar,” he said, “but much lower than I think they want, because they want to effectively download and keep current the entirety of the Whois database.”

I’m not getting a sense from GoDaddy that it’s likely to backtrack on its changes.

Indeed, the company also today announced that it from January 25 it will start to “mask” key elements of Whois records when queried over port 43.

GoDaddy told high-value customers such as domainers today that port 43 queries will no longer return the registrant’s first name, last name, email address or phone number.

Bulk Whois users such as registrars (and, I assume, DomainTools) that have been white-listed via the “GoDaddy Port43 Process” will continue to receive full records.

Its web-based Whois, which includes a CAPTCHA gateway to prevent scraping, will continue to function as normal.

Bladel said that these changes are NOT related to GDPR, nor to the fact that ICANN said a couple months back that it would not enforce compliance with Whois provisions of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, subject to certain conditions.

Big changes at DomainTools as privacy law looms

Kevin Murphy, January 11, 2018, Domain Services

Regular users of DomainTools should expect significant changes to their service, possibly unwelcome, as the impact of incoming European Union privacy law begins to be felt.

Professional users such as domain investors are most likely to be impacted by the changes.

The company hopes to announce how its services will be rejiggered to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation in the next few weeks, probably in February, but CEO Tim Chen spoke to DI yesterday in general terms about the law’s possible impact.

“There will be changes to the levels of service we offer currently, especially to any users of DomainTools that are not enterprises,” Chen said.

GDPR governs how personal data on EU citizens is captured, shared and processed. It deals with issues such as customer consent, the length of time such data may be stored, and the purposes for which it may be processed.

Given that DomainTools’ entire business model is based on capturing domain registrants’ contact information without their explicit consent, then storing, processing and sharing that data indefinitely, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the new law represents a possibly existential threat.

But while Chen says he’s “very concerned” about GDPR, he expects the use cases of his enterprise customers to be protected.

DomainTools no longer considers itself a Whois company, Chen said, it’s a security services company now. Only about 20% of its revenue now comes from the $99-a-month customers who pay to access services such as reverse Whois and historical Whois queries.

The rest comes from the 500-odd enterprise customers it has, which use the company’s data for purposes such as tracking down network abuse and intellectual property theft.

DomainTools is very much aligned here with the governments and IP lawyers that are pressing ICANN and European data protection authorities to come up with a way Whois data can still be made available for these “legitimate purposes”.

“We’re very focused on our most-important goal of making sure the cyber security and network security use cases for Whois data are represented in the final discussions on how this legislation is really going to land,” he said.

“There needs to be some level of access that is retained for uses that are very consistent with protecting the very constituents that this legislation is trying to protect from a privacy perspective,” he said.

The two big issues pressing on Chen’s mind from a GDPR perspective are the ability of the company to continue to aggregate Whois records from hundreds of TLDs and thousands of registrars, and its ability to continue to provide historical, archived Whois records — the company’s most-popular product after vanilla Whois..

These are both critical for customers responding to security issues or trying to hunt down serial cybersquatters and copyright infringers, Chen said.

“[Customers are] very concerned, because their ability to use this data as part of their incident response is critical, and the removal of the data from that process really does injure their ability to do their jobs,” he said.

How far these use cases will be protected under GDPR is still an open question, one largely to be determined by European DPAs, and DomainTools, like ICANN the rest of the domain industry, is still largely in discussion mode.

“Part of what we need to help DPAs understand is: how long is long enough?” Chen said. “Answering how long this data can be archived is very important.”

ICANN was recently advised by its lawyers to take its case for maintaining Whois in as recognizable form as possible to the DPAs and other European privacy bodies.

And governments, via the Governmental Advisory Committee, recently urged ICANN to continue to permit Whois access for “legitimate purposes”.

DomainTools is in a different position to most of the rest of the industry. In terms of its core service, it’s not a contracted party with ICANN, so perhaps will have to rely on hoping whatever the registries and registrars work out will also apply to its own offerings.

It’s also different in that it has no direct customer relationship with the registrants whose data it processes, nor does it have a contractual relationship with the companies that do have these customer relationships.

This could make the issue of consent — the right of registrant to have a say in how their data is processed and when it is deleted — tricky.

“We’re not in a position to get consent from domain owners to do what we do,” Chen said. “I think where we need to be more thoughtful is whether DomainTools needs to have a process where people can opt out of having their data processed.”

“When I think about consent, it’s not on the way in, because we just don’t have a way to do that, it’s allowing a way out… a mechanism where people can object to their data being processed,” he said.

How DomainTools’ non-enterprise customers and users will be affected should become clear when the company outlines its plans in the coming weeks.

But Chen suggested that most casual users should not see too much impact.

“The ability of anyone who has an interest in using Whois data, who needs it every now and then, for looking up a Whois record of a domain because they want to buy it as a domain investor for example, that should still be very possible after GDPR,” he said.

“I don’t think GDPR is aimed at individual, one-at-a-time use cases for data, I think it’s aimed at scalable abuse of the data for bad purposes,” he said.

“If you’re running a business in domain names and you need to get Whois at significant scale, and you need to evaluate that many domains for some reason, that’s where the impact may be,” he said.

Disclosure: I share a complimentary DomainTools account with several other domain industry bloggers.

New Trump appointee slams ICANN after security group shutdown

Kevin Murphy, December 19, 2017, Domain Policy

Not even a month into the job, the US official with most direct responsibility over domain name policy has criticized ICANN for shutting down a security working group.

David Redl, the new assistant secretary at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, wrote to ICANN (pdf) last week to complain about its board unilaterally shutting down, temporarily, its supposedly independent Security, Stability and Resiliency of the DNS Review team.

He wrote that the action “calls into question” ICANN’s commitment to transparency and accountability, writing:

Everything documented to date about these reviews stresses the importance of openness, transparency and community consultation. Unfortunately, it seems that with the October 28th action, the ICANN Board violated these principles by substituting its judgement for that of the community.

SSR-2, as it is known, is one of the reviews previously mandated by ICANN’s Affirmation of Commitments with the US government (via the NTIA) but which can now be found instead embedded in its bylaws.

The ICANN board of directors temporarily suspended it in October, something like a soft reboot, after growing concerned that it was stepping outside of its mandate and that its members lacked expertise.

The move attracted broad criticism and it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that Redl’s position is a controversial one — you’d be hard pressed to find any section of the community that wholeheartedly supports the board’s action.

Indeed, the US representative to the Governmental Advisory Committee voiced similar concerns at the ICANN meeting in Abu Dhabi in late October, prior to Redl’s confirmation to the NTIA job.

Redl took the post November 21, having been nominated by Donald Trump back in May, replacing Obama appointee Larry Strickling, who left the agency in January.

He’s the first NTIA chief since ICANN’s inception not to enjoy the special position of power over ICANN granted by the old IANA contract, which was scrapped in September 2016.

Concern as ICANN shuts down “independent” security review

Kevin Murphy, October 31, 2017, Domain Policy

Just a year after gaining its independence from the US government, ICANN has come under scrutiny over concerns that its board of directors may have overstepped its powers.

The board has come in for criticism from almost everyone expressing an opinion at the ICANN 60 meeting in Abu Dhabi this week, after it temporarily suspended a supposedly independent security review.

The Security, Stability and Resiliency of the DNS Review, known as SSR-2, is one of the mandatory reviews that got transferred into ICANN’s bylaws after the Affirmation of Commitments with the US wound up last year.

The review is supposed to look at ICANN’s “execution of its commitment to enhance the operational stability, reliability, resiliency, security, and global interoperability of the systems and processes, both internal and external, that directly affect and/or are affected by the Internet’s system of unique identifiers that ICANN coordinates”.

The 14 to 16 volunteer members have been working for about eight months, but at the weekend the ICANN board pulled the plug, saying in a letter to the review team that it had decided “to suspend the review team’s work” and said its work “should be paused”.

Chair Steve Crocker clarified in sessions over the weekend and yesterday that it was a direction, not a request, but that the pause was merely “a moment to take stock and then get started again”.

Incoming chair Cherine Chalaby said in various sessions today and yesterday that the community — which I take to mean the leaders of the various interest groups — is now tasked with un-pausing the work.

Incoming vice-chair Chris Disspain told community leaders in an email (pdf) yesterday:

The Board has not usurped the community’s authority with respect to this review. Rather, we are asking the SOs and ACs to consider the concerns we have heard and determine whether or not adjustments are needed. We believe that a temporary pause in the SSR2 work while this consideration is under way is a sensible approach designed to ensure stakeholders can reach a common understanding on the appropriate scope and work plan

Confusion has nevertheless arise among community members, and some serious concerns and criticisms have been raised by commercial and non-commercial interests — including governments — over the last few days in Abu Dhabi.

But the board’s concerns with the work of SSR-2 seem to date back a few months, to the Johannesburg meeting in June, at which Crocker said “dangerous signals” were observed.

It’s not clear what he was referring to there, but the first serious push-back by ICANN came earlier this month, when board liaison Kaveh Ranjbar, apparently only appointed to that role in June, emailed the group to say it was over-stepping its mandate.

Basically, the SSR-2 group’s plan to carry out a detailed audit of ICANN’s internal security profile seems to have put the willies up the ICANN organization and board.

Ranjbar wrote:

The areas the Board is concerned with are areas that indeed raise important organizational information security and organizational oversight questions. However, these are also areas that are not segregated for community review, and are the responsibility of the ICANN Organization (through the CEO) to perform under the oversight of the ICANN Board.

While we support the community in receiving information necessary to perform a full and meaningful review over ICANN’s SSR commitments, there are portions of the more detailed “audit” plan that do not seem appropriate for in-depth investigation by the subgroup. Maintaining a plan to proceed with detailed assessments of these areas is likely to result in recommendations that are not tethered to the scope of the SSR review, and as such, may not be appropriate for Board acceptance when recommendations are issued. This also can expand the time and resources needed to perform this part of the review.

This does not seem hugely unreasonable to me. This kind of audit could be expensive, time-consuming and — knowing ICANN’s history of “glitches” — could have easily exposed all kinds of embarrassing vulnerabilities to the public domain.

Ranjbar’s letter was followed up a day later with a missive (pdf) from the chair of ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee, which said the SSR-2’s work was doomed to fail.

Patrick Falstrom recommended a “temporarily halt” to the group’s work. He wrote:

One basic problem with the SSR2 work is that the review team seems neither to have sufficient external instruction about what to study nor to have been able to formulate a clear direction for itself. Whatever the case, the Review Team has spent hundreds of hours engaged in procedural matters and almost no progress has been made on substantive matters, which in turn has damaged the goodwill and forbearance of its members, some of whom are SSAC members. We are concerned that, left to its own devices, SSR2 is on a path to almost certain failure bringing a consequential loss of credibility in the accountability processes of ICANN and its community.

Now that ICANN has actually acted upon that recommendation, there’s concern that it sets a disturbing precedent for the board taking “unilateral” action to scupper supposedly independent accountability mechanisms.

The US government itself expressed concern, during a session between the board and the Governmental Advisory Committee in Abu Dhabi today.

“This is unprecedented,” US GAC rep Ashley Heineman said. “I just don’t believe it was ever an expectation that the ICANN board would unilaterally make a decision to pause or suspend this action. And that is a matter of concern for us.”

“It would be one thing if it was the community that specifically asked for a pause or if it was a review team that says ‘Hey, we’re having issues, we need a pause.’ What’s of concern here is that ICANN asked for this pause,” she said.

UK GACer Mark Carvell added that governments have been “receiving expressions of grave concern” about the move and urged “maximum transparency” as the SSR-2 gets back on track.

Jonathan Zuck of the Innovators Network Foundation, one of the volunteers who worked on ICANN’s transition from US government oversight, also expressed concern during the public forum session yesterday.

“I think having a fundamental accountability mechanism unilaterally put on hold is something that we should be concerned about in terms of process,” he said. “I’m not convinced that it was the only way to proceed and that from a precedential standpoint it’s not best way to proceed.”

Similar concerns were voiced by many other parts of the community as they met with the ICANN board throughout today and yesterday.

The problem now is that the bylaws do not account for a board-mandated “pause” in a review team’s work, so there’s no process to “unpause” it.

ICANN seems to have got itself tangled up in a procedural quagmire — again — but sessions later in the week have been scheduled in order for the community to begin to untangle the situation.

It doubt we’ll see a resolution this week. This is likely to run for a while.