Posts Tagged: WHOIS


27
Apr 18

Security Trade-Offs in the New EU Privacy Law

On two occasions this past year I’ve published stories here warning about the prospect that new European privacy regulations could result in more spams and scams ending up in your inbox. This post explains in a question and answer format some of the reasoning that went into that prediction, and responds to many of the criticisms leveled against it.

Before we get to the Q&A, a bit of background is in order. On May 25, 2018 the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) takes effect. The law, enacted by the European Parliament, requires companies to get affirmative consent for any personal information they collect on people within the European Union. Organizations that violate the GDPR could face fines of up to four percent of global annual revenues.

In response, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) — the nonprofit entity that manages the global domain name system — has proposed redacting key bits of personal data from WHOIS, the system for querying databases that store the registered users of domain names and blocks of Internet address ranges (IP addresses).

Under current ICANN rules, domain name registrars should collect and display a variety of data points when someone performs a WHOIS lookup on a given domain, such as the registrant’s name, address, email address and phone number. Most registrars offer a privacy protection service that shields this information from public WHOIS lookups; some registrars charge a nominal fee for this service, while others offer it for free.

But in a bid to help registrars comply with the GDPR, ICANN is moving forward on a plan to remove critical data elements from all public WHOIS records. Under the new system, registrars would collect all the same data points about their customers, yet limit how much of that information is made available via public WHOIS lookups.

The data to be redacted includes the name of the person who registered the domain, as well as their phone number, physical address and email address. The new rules would apply to all domain name registrars globally.

ICANN has proposed creating an “accreditation system” that would vet access to personal data in WHOIS records for several groups, including journalists, security researchers, and law enforcement officials, as well as intellectual property rights holders who routinely use WHOIS records to combat piracy and trademark abuse.

But at an ICANN meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico last month, ICANN representatives conceded that a proposal for how such a vetting system might work probably would not be ready until December 2018. Assuming ICANN meets that deadline, it could be many months after that before the hundreds of domain registrars around the world take steps to adopt the new measures.

In a series of posts on Twitter, I predicted that the WHOIS changes coming with GDPR will likely result in a noticeable increase in cybercrime — particularly in the form of phishing and other types of spam. In response to those tweets, several authors on Wednesday published an article for Georgia Tech’s Internet Governance Project titled, “WHOIS afraid of the dark? Truth or illusion, let’s know the difference when it comes to WHOIS.”

The following Q&A is intended to address many of the more misleading claims and assertions made in that article.

Cyber criminals don’t use their real information in WHOIS registrations, so what’s the big deal if the data currently available in WHOIS records is no longer in the public domain after May 25?

I can point to dozens of stories printed here — and probably hundreds elsewhere — that clearly demonstrate otherwise. Whether or not cyber crooks do provide their real information is beside the point. ANY information they provide — and especially information that they re-use across multiple domains and cybercrime campaigns — is invaluable to both grouping cybercriminal operations and in ultimately identifying who’s responsible for these activities.

To understand why data reuse in WHOIS records is so common among crooks, put yourself in the shoes of your average scammer or spammer — someone who has to register dozens or even hundreds or thousands of domains a week to ply their trade. Are you going to create hundreds or thousands of email addresses and fabricate as many personal details to make your WHOIS listings that much harder for researchers to track? The answer is that those who take this extraordinary step are by far and away the exception rather than the rule. Most simply reuse the same email address and phony address/phone/contact information across many domains as long as it remains profitable for them to do so.

This pattern of WHOIS data reuse doesn’t just extend across a few weeks or months. Very often, if a spammer, phisher or scammer can get away with re-using the same WHOIS details over many years without any deleterious effects to their operations, they will happily do so. Why they may do this is their own business, but nevertheless it makes WHOIS an incredibly powerful tool for tracking threat actors across multiple networks, registrars and Internet epochs.

All domain registrars offer free or a-la-carte privacy protection services that mask the personal information provided by the domain registrant. Most cybercriminals — unless they are dumb or lazy — are already taking advantage of these anyway, so it’s not clear why masking domain registration for everyone is going to change the status quo by much. 

It is true that some domain registrants do take advantage of WHOIS privacy services, but based on countless investigations I have conducted using WHOIS to uncover cybercrime businesses and operators, I’d wager that cybercrooks more often do not use these services. Not infrequently, when they do use WHOIS privacy options there are still gaps in coverage at some point in the domain’s history (such as when a registrant switches hosting providers) which are indexed by historic WHOIS records and that offer a brief window of visibility into the details behind the registration.

This is demonstrably true even for organized cybercrime groups and for nation state actors, and these are arguably some of the most sophisticated and savvy cybercriminals out there.

It’s worth adding that if so many cybercrooks seem nonchalant about adopting WHOIS privacy services it may well be because they reside in countries where the rule of law is not well-established, or their host country doesn’t particularly discourage their activities so long as they’re not violating the golden rule — namely, targeting people in their own backyard. And so they may not particularly care about covering their tracks. Or in other cases they do care, but nevertheless make mistakes or get sloppy at some point, as most cybercriminals do.

The GDPR does not apply to businesses — only to individuals — so there is no reason researchers or anyone else should be unable to find domain registration details for organizations and companies in the WHOIS database after May 25, right?

It is true that the European privacy regulations as they relate to WHOIS records do not apply to businesses registering domain names. However, the domain registrar industry — which operates on razor-thin profit margins and which has long sought to be free from any WHOIS requirements or accountability whatsoever — won’t exactly be tripping over themselves to add more complexity to their WHOIS efforts just to make a distinction between businesses and individuals.

As a result, registrars simply won’t make that distinction because there is no mandate that they must. They’ll just adopt the same WHOIS data collection and display polices across the board, regardless of whether the WHOIS details for a given domain suggest that the registrant is a business or an individual. Continue reading →


16
Mar 18

Who Is Afraid of More Spams and Scams?

Security researchers who rely on data included in Web site domain name records to combat spammers and scammers will likely lose access to that information for at least six months starting at the end of May 2018, under a new proposal that seeks to bring the system in line with new European privacy laws. The result, some experts warn, will likely mean more spams and scams landing in your inbox.

On May 25, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) takes effect. The law, enacted by the European Parliament, requires companies to get affirmative consent for any personal information they collect on people within the European Union. Organizations that violate the GDPR could face fines of up to four percent of global annual revenues.

In response, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) — the nonprofit entity that manages the global domain name system — has proposed redacting key bits of personal data from WHOIS, the system for querying databases that store the registered users of domain names and blocks of Internet address ranges (IP addresses).

Under current ICANN rules, domain name registrars should collect and display a variety of data points when someone performs a WHOIS lookup on a given domain, such as the registrant’s name, address, email address and phone number. Most registrars offer a privacy protection service that shields this information from public WHOIS lookups; some registrars charge a nominal fee for this service, while others offer it for free.

But in a bid to help registrars comply with the GDPR, ICANN is moving forward on a plan to remove critical data elements from all public WHOIS records. Under the new system, registrars would collect all the same data points about their customers, yet limit how much of that information is made available via public WHOIS lookups.

The data to be redacted includes the name of the person who registered the domain, as well as their phone number, physical address and email address. The new rules would apply to all domain name registrars globally.

ICANN has proposed creating an “accreditation system” that would vet access to personal data in WHOIS records for several groups, including journalists, security researchers, and law enforcement officials, as well as intellectual property rights holders who routinely use WHOIS records to combat piracy and trademark abuse.

But at an ICANN meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Thursday, ICANN representatives conceded that a proposal for how such a vetting system might work probably would not be ready until December 2018. Assuming ICANN meets that deadline, it could be many months after that before the hundreds of domain registrars around the world take steps to adopt the new measures.

Gregory Mounier, head of outreach at EUROPOL‘s European Cybercrime Center and member of ICANN’s Public Safety Working Group, said the new WHOIS plan could leave security researchers in the lurch — at least in the short run.

“If you don’t have an accreditation system by 25 May then there’s no means for cybersecurity folks to get access to this information,” Mounier told KrebsOnSecurity. “Let’s say you’re monitoring a botnet and have 10.000 domains connected to that and you want to find information about them in the WHOIS records, you won’t be able to do that anymore. It probably won’t be implemented before December 2018 or January 2019, and that may mean security gaps for many months.”

Rod Rasmussen, chair of ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee, said ICANN does not have a history of getting things done before or on set deadlines, meaning it may be well more than six months before researchers and others can get vetted to access personal information in WHOIS data.

Asked for his take on the chances that ICANN and the registrar community might still be designing the vetting system this time next year, Rasmussen said “100 percent.”

“A lot of people who are using this data won’t be able to get access to it, and it’s not going to be pretty,” Rasmussen said. “Once things start going dark it will have a cascading effect. Email deliverability is going to be one issue, and the amount of spam that shows up in peoples’ inboxes will be climbing rapidly because a lot of anti-spam technologies rely on WHOIS for their algorithms.”

As I noted in last month’s story on this topic, WHOIS is probably the single most useful tool we have right now for tracking down cybercrooks and/or for disrupting their operations. On any given day I probably perform 20-30 different WHOIS queries; on days I’ve set aside for deep-dive research, I may run hundreds of WHOIS searches. Continue reading →


16
Sep 13

WHOIS Privacy Plan Draws Fire

Internet regulators are pushing a controversial plan to restrict public access to WHOIS Web site registration records. Proponents of the proposal say it would improve the accuracy of WHOIS data and better protect the privacy of people who register domain names. Critics argue that such a shift would be unworkable and make it more difficult to combat phishers, spammers and scammers.

ardsA working group within The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organization that oversees the Internet’s domain name system, has proposed scrapping the current WHOIS system — which is inconsistently managed by hundreds of domain registrars and allows anyone to query Web site registration records. To replace the current system, the group proposes creating a more centralized WHOIS lookup system that is closed by default.

According to an interim report (PDF) by the ICANN working group, the WHOIS data would be accessible only to “authenticated requestors that are held accountable for appropriate use” of the information.

“After working through a broad array of use cases, and the myriad of issues they raised, [ICANN’s working group] concluded that today’s WHOIS model—giving every user the same anonymous public access to (too often inaccurate) registration data—should be abandoned,” ICANN’s “expert working group” wrote. The group said it “recognizes the need for accuracy, along with the need to protect the privacy of those registrants who may require heightened protections of their personal information.”

The working group’s current plan envisions creating what it calls an “aggregated registration directory service” (ARDS) to serve as a clearinghouse that contains a non-authoritative copy of all of the collected data elements. The registrars and registries that operate the hundreds of different generic top-level domains (gTLDs, like dot-biz, dot-name, e.g.) would be responsible for maintaining the authoritative sources of WHOIS data for domains in their gTLDs. Those who wish to query WHOIS domain registration data from the system would have to apply for access credentials to the ARDS, which would be responsible for handling data accuracy complaints, auditing access to the system to minimize abuse, and managing the licensing arrangement for access to the WHOIS data.

The plan acknowledges that creating a “one-stop shop” for registration data also might well paint a giant target on the group for hackers, but it holds that such a system would nevertheless allow for greater accountability for validating registration data.

Unsurprisingly, the interim proposal has met with a swell of opposition from some security and technology experts who worry about the plan’s potential for harm to consumers and cybercrime investigators.

“Internet users (individuals, businesses, law enforcement, governments, journalists and others) should not be subject to barriers – including prior authorization, disclosure obligations, payment of fees, etc. – in order to gain access to information about who operates a website, with the exception of legitimate privacy protection services,” reads a letter (PDF) jointly submitted to ICANN last month by G2 Web Services, OpSec Security, LegitScript and DomainTools.

“Internet users have the right to know who is operating a website they are visiting (or, the fact that it is registered anonymously),” the letter continues. “Today, individuals review full WHOIS records and, based on any one of the fields, identify and report fraud and other abusive behaviors; journalists and academics use WHOIS data to conduct research and expose miscreant behavior; and parents use WHOIS data to better understand who they (or their children) are dealing with online. These and other uses improve the security and stability of the Internet and should be encouraged not burdened by barriers of a closed by default system.”

Continue reading →


8
Mar 11

WHOIS Problem Reporting System to Gain Privacy Option

A system that allows anti-spam activists to report entities that bulk-register domain names using false or misleading identity data is about to gain a much-needed new privacy feature: The option for activists not to expose their identities to the very spammers they’re trying to report.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organization that oversees the Internet’s domain name system, runs a program called the WHOIS Data Problem Reporting System (WDPRS). It’s designed to allow Internet community members to alert registrars about customers that list incomplete or inaccurate contact records for domain registrations.

The policy of requiring registrars to make WHOIS data publicly searchable is no doubt a contentious one, but the reality is that spammers and scammers frequently bulk register large numbers of domains in one go, and tend to take their business to registrars that don’t ask too many questions. Indeed, some domain registrars have built a business out of catering to spammers and scammers.

In many cases, spammers will mass-register domains using completely bogus contact information, or — as appears to have been the case with hundreds of domains that were used recently in an attack against KrebsOnSecurity.com — with the contact information belonging to people whose stolen credit cards were used to fraudulently register the spammy domains.

Some anti-spam activists have pursued bulk registrants with false WHOIS data because, under ICANN’s rules, registrars are supposed to investigate and eventually suspend domains whose owners fail to respond to requests to verify or correct false WHOIS data. And in direct response to a massive influx of reporting on these domains by such activists, ICANN built the WPDRS.

But at some point, ICANN began sharing the names and email addresses of people who were reporting the erroneous WHOIS information with the registrars for each offending domain, exposing the identities of any anti-spam activists who used their real contact information in reporting the issues to ICANN.

Continue reading →


21
Oct 10

Pill Gangs Besmirch LegitScript Founder

Individuals who normally promote unlicensed, fly-by-night Internet pharmacies recently registered hundreds of hardcore porn and bestiality Web sites using contact information for the founder of a company that has helped to shutter more than 10,000 of these Internet pill mills over the past year, KrebsOnSecurity.com has learned.

The reputation attack is the latest sortie in an increasingly high-profile and high-stakes battle among spammers, online pill purveyors and those trying to shed light on their activities. Around the same time that these fake domains were registered, KrebsOnSecurity.com came under a sustained denial of service attack that traced back to Russian pill gangs.

In the third week of September, hundreds of domains were registered using the name, phone number and former business address of John Horton, founder of LegitScript, an Internet pharmacy verification service. The domains, many containing the word “adult,” all redirect to a handful of porn and bestiality sites (a partial list is available here, but please tread lightly with these sites because they are definitely not safe for work and may not be safe for your PC).

The sites were registered just days after LegitScript finalized a deal with eNom Inc., the world’s 5th-largest domain name registrar. At the time of that agreement, roughly 40 percent of the unlicensed online pharmacies selling drugs without requiring a prescription were registered through eNom, according to Horton.

Since then, many affiliates who promote pill sites via online pharmacy affiliate programs have been scrambling to move their domains to other registrars, with varying degrees of success.

Continue reading →