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Security bug stalls new dot-word TLD land grab AGAIN

ICANN's domain explosion backfires, fizzles out

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Domain name overlord ICANN has been forced to delay its new top-level domain (TLD) expansion by another week as its techies attempt to analyse the fallout of an embarrassing security vulnerability.

Its TLD Application System (TAS), which companies worldwide have been using since January to confidentially apply for gTLDs such as .gay, .london and .blog, has now been down for 10 days due to a bug that enabled some applicants to see information belonging to others.

While ICANN maintains that it has fixed the problem, it now says that it needs at least another week to sift through its mountains of TAS logs, in order to figure out which applicants' data was visible to which other applicants.

ICANN had been receiving reports about the bug since at least 19 March, but only pulled the plug on 12 April, just 12 hours before the final application submission deadline, when it realised how serious the problem could be.

It initially hoped to get the system back up and running by 17 April, but when that deadline passed it then promised to give users an update on the timing by Friday 20 April.

However, that update, which arrived over the weekend, merely promised to provide yet another update before the end of Friday 27 April.

"No later than 27 April 2012 we will provide an update on the reopening of the system and the publication of the applied-for new domain names," chief operating officer Akram Atallah said.

While ICANN is declining interview requests from the media, it did publish a video interview between its head of media relations and chief security officer Jeff "The Dark Tangent" Moss on Friday, which explained some of the technical details of the vulnerability.

"Under certain circumstances that were hard to replicate users that had previously deleted files could end up seeing file names of users that had uploaded a file," Moss said. "Certain data was being revealed to users that were not seeking data, it was just showing up on their screen."

Moss confirmed that no outside attackers had access to data, and that the contents of the compromised files were not accessible by anyone but the applicant to which they belonged.

Nevertheless, the file names themselves could have proven valuable. Most gTLD applications have been filed secretly, without public announcement, in order to reduce the risk of competing applications being filed for the same strings.

Due to the way ICANN's new gTLD programme is structured, a "contention set" of two or more conflicting applications could wind up in an auction. This has pressed the need for confidentiality on most applicants.

Because many companies uploaded files to TAS named after the gTLD string being applied for, confidential information may therefore have been compromised.

While no claims of foul play have yet been made, ICANN is promising to fully disclose – at least to the applicants themselves – whose data was viewable by whom.

"We’re putting everyone on notice: we know what file names and user names were displayed to what people who were logged in and when," Moss said. "We want to do this very publicly because we want to prevent any monkey business. We are able to reconstruct what file names and user names were displayed."

The delay in reopening TAS has not been well-received by some applicants.

"My advice to ICANN now: get your skates on!" said Stephane Van Gelder, general manager of the domain name registrar Indom, in an editorial on CircleID.

"Stop faffing about trying to verify every single bit of applicant data that may have been impacted by the glitch," Van Gelder, who is also chair of ICANN's influential GNSO Council policy body, added. "ICANN's next update... should be: 'in the interest of getting the new gTLD program back on track, we've decided to restart TAS now.'"

The organisation currently plans to reopen TAS for five business days before the final filing deadline, which now appears to mean 4 May at the earliest – 20 days late. As a consequence, its planned 30 April Reveal Day, when it publishes the applications for public comment, has been postponed. ®

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