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Three things registrars must do to enhance security

If the rise of phishing has taught us anything, it's that on the Internet, if a digital asset has value, there's somebody out there who wants to steal it. Whether it's a bank account password, a credit card number, a PayPal login, or even a magic sword in an online game, there's a fraudster somewhere trying to misappropriate it for his or her own nefarious purposes.

Domain names have always been a target for such criminals. Companies and individuals doing business online have few assets more valuable than their domain name. It may cost $10 or less to register one, but the domain name is the glue that connects a company to its customers; revenue and brand equity depend upon its security.

Domain theft is not a new phenomenon, of course. Sex.com, for example, was hijacked all the way back in 1995, when there was only one registrar. Its true registrant had to spend years in court to retrieve it. In more recent years, high-profile domains such as Panix.com, Baidu.com and even ICANN.org have been temporarily stolen by attackers using social engineering to exploit process vulnerabilities at domain name registrars.

It's surprising, given that domain name hijacking predates the creation of the competitive registrar market itself, that the industry has not done more in the last decade to mitigate the risks. ICANN's Security and Stability Advisory Committee (SSAC) noted as recently as last year that "pure play, secure registration service providers are rare, in part due to the fact that evaluating security measures does not play as prominent a role in customer decisions when choosing a registrar as it should."

However, registrant apathy regarding security may already be changing, according to a recent survey of savvy registrants.

There are three areas where registrars, in general, have room for improvement when it comes to security.

1. Better Authentication

The simple username/password authentication approach so common at Registrars has repeatedly been found vulnerable to social engineering attacks and should not be considered strong enough security for high-value domain name accounts. This is especially true when automated password reminders are available. If all an attacker needs to do is compromise a password or e-mail address in order to have complete control over a domain portfolio, registrants have the right to ask for stronger authentication.

Nowadays, it's common practice for large financial institutions to allow, or even require, multi-factor authentication before giving customers access to valuable assets. But it's not just banks. After the phishing black market put a dollar value on World of Warcraft accounts, the game's developer had to start offering players one-time password tokens, in the form of key fobs, as a second authentication factor, to decrease fraud.

When you think about it, the fact that magic swords are sometimes offered a greater degree of protection than domain names is pretty crazy.

2. Notifications

When someone logs into a registrar domain account they are given virtually the "keys to the kingdom" for that organization's entire domain portfolio and DNS settings. If domain account access is compromised, then all it takes for the criminal is to login to the registrar account, change the registrant and other contacts associated with the domain, and then either change the DNS information to point to a new site or transfer the domains to a completely different registrar where it is difficult for to reclaim the names.

It is time registrants get routinely notified when such changes are made to their domain name portfolio, whether via e-mail, text or perhaps even telephone for the most critical items. The best scenario is to notify two or more authorized employees to provide for shift changes and/or redundancy. Social engineering is the attack of choice for hijacking domains, and it's harder to impersonate two people than one.

Because e-mail accounts are easier to compromise than phone numbers, using out-of-band communications channels, such as telephone or SMS text message, could also increase security.

3. Access Control

Usually, authenticated registrants have global privileges: they can change name servers, transfer out domains or cancel renewals, for example. The risk of domain hijacking could be further mitigated by employing more granular access controls once a customer has been "authenticated". Many registrants may wish to use a higher level of security on their primary domains, limiting critical privileges to certain high-status users. The learning curve here could be eased somewhat by the fact that existing registrar Whois records already usually describe at least three roles – the administrative, technical and billing contacts.

Registrars should enable Registrants to designate different contacts for different authority levels. This would accord Registrants the choice of better protection.


None of these measures need to be a drain on registrars' margins. Indeed, once in place, these will save money that is now spent resolving disputes after the fact by making criminal activity more difficult. Further, with domain name registrants increasingly looking at registrars' security provisions before they make their purchasing decisions, the opportunity presented by value-added premium services, designed for security and marketed to customers with high-value domain portfolios, should be obvious. Criminals look for the softest targets; with a little effort in just 3 areas, registrars can significantly improve the security they provide for registrants.

For more reading on this topic, see SSAC's advisory to registrars on improving security: SAC040

(Disclosure: I am one of the charter members of SSAC)