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ICANN warns world of domain hijacking

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A report by the internet's leading security experts has warned the world of the risk of domain name hijacking and told the industry to pull its socks up.

ICANN's Security and Stability Advisory Committee has outlined several famous and recent thefts of websites, including Panix.com, Hushmail.com and HZ.com, and listed where the system went wrong and what can be done to correct the flaws.

It has made 10 findings and, in response, 10 recommendations for how the internet industry and consumers themselves can make sure that people don't steal their online property.

The problem is relatively small at the moment, head of the committee and ICANN Board member, Steve Crocker, told us but when it happened it was a "full-scale disaster". Panix.com, for example, vanished from the internet after a fraudulent request saw the website and its thousands of customers' emails redirected to an entirely different part of the internet.

Hushmail's website was cleverly stolen in steps, first a phonecall, then an email, then a wholesale shift of the domain. The company is still suffering the ill-effects of the hijacking, the company told the SSAC.

However, despite the risk that the number of domain name hijackings could rocket in future, the report's author, Dave Piscitello, told us he was certain the problem could be stemmed if action was taken now.

The Panix.com problem for example was compounded by several factors. The company that authorised the move did so on the request of one its own resellers, assuming that company had carried out the usual checks. It had not. On top of that, it happened at a weekend (most likely on purpose) and the delay in getting the right staff on the phone meant the problem was made ten times bigger.

As a result, the report [pdf] has strongly urged all registrars to publish emergency contact details and to have trained staff with access to their system sitting at the end of them. It has also told registrars to make sure that their resellers are following tried-and-tested policies.

There are two over-riding messages, Crocker said: “One: heightened awareness. And two: corrective response.”

The SSAC is hoping that by publishing several example of big failures, and then explaining how they could have been avoided, the Internet community - not only registrars but also business and individual citizens - will self-regulate by pressuring those companies that don't follow the guidelines into doing so.

Introducing such measures would be very cheap and mostly technical, Crocker explained, so there is little reason for registrars not to implement them if commercial pressure is applied. With only 150 accredited registrars actively selling and reselling domains, it is a fairly small industry.

However, the SSAC also recommends that ICANN look into a system that would penalise registrars that fail to live up to expectations. Piscitello said he hoped the threat would be enough for such a system not to have to be introduced. ICANN chairman, Vint Cerf, has already made it clear however that the ICANN Board will discuss the report at a future meeting.

Domain name hijacking isn't the first time that the domain transfer system has been abused. Tens of thousands of normal citizens have been bitten by companies abusing the previous rules by charging tiny amounts for registering domains and then a small fortune and/or making it extremely difficult for them to be moved elsewhere.

A change in transfer rules recently simplified the process and, to Crocker's mind, has largely wiped out that problem as a result. That simplification has at the same time enabled people to go after bigger targets by posing as owners. Both Crocker and Piscitello were keen to point out however that the new transfer policies remain better than the old ones and if people follow them accurately, the risk of a domain hijacking is minimal.

For the man in the street though there is still one important element he needs to be aware of - domain locking. Ii is offered by all registrars and will make sure that your domain is not moved unless the registrar you chose has your permission. Just that single step could see the level of domain theft collapse.

Related link

SSAC's report [pdf]

Related stories

The aftermath of a domain name hijack [Panix.com]
Hushmail hit by DNS attack

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