A Study of Whois Privacy and Proxy Service Abuse

September 25th, 2013 at 14:57 UTC by Richard Clayton

ICANN have now published a draft for public comment of “A Study of Whois Privacy and Proxy Service Abuse“. I am the primary author of this report — the work being done whilst I was collaborating with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) under EPSRC Grant EP/H018298/1.

This particular study was originally proposed by ICANN in 2010, one of several that were to examine the impact of domain registrants using privacy services (where the name of a domain registrant is published, but contact details are kept private) and proxy services (where even the domain licensee’s name is not made available on the public database).

ICANN wanted to know if a significant percentage of the domain names used to conduct illegal or harmful Internet activities are registered via privacy or proxy services to obscure the perpetrator’s identity? No surprises in our results: they are!

However, it’s more interesting to ask whether this percentage is somewhat higher than the usage of privacy or proxy services for entirely lawful and harmless Internet activities? This turned out NOT to be the case — for example banks use privacy and proxy services almost as often as the registrants of domains used in the hosting of child sexual abuse images; and the registrants of domains used to host (legal) adult pornography use privacy and proxy services more often than most (but not all) of the different types of malicious activity that we studied.

It’s also relevant to consider what other methods might be chosen by those involved in criminal activity to obscure their identities, because in the event of changes to privacy and proxy services, it is likely that they will turn to these alternatives.

Accordingly, we determined experimentally whether a significant percentage of the domain names we examined have been registered with incorrect Whois contact information – and specifically whether or not we could reach the domain registrant using a phone number from the Whois information. We asked them a single question in their native language “did you register this domain”?

We got somewhat variable results from our phone survey — but the pattern becomes clear if we consider whether there is any a priori hope at all of ringing up the domain registrant?

If we sum up the likelihoods:

  • uses privacy or proxy service
  • no (apparently valid) phone number in whois
  • number is apparently valid, but fails to connect
  • number reaches someone other than the registrant

then we find that for legal and harmless activities the probability of a phone call not being possible ranges between 24% (legal pharmacies on the Legitscript list) and 62% (owners of lawful websites that someone has broken into and installed phishing pages). For malicious activities the probability of failure is 88% or more, with typosquatting (which is a civil matter, rather than a criminal one) sitting at 68% (some of the typosquatters want to hide, some do not).

There’s lots of detail and supporting statistics in the report… and an executive summary for the time-challenged. It will provide real data, rather than just speculative anecdotes, to inform the debate around reforming Whois — and the difficulties of doing so.

Entry filed under: Academic papers, Security economics, Web security

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