All posts by Richard Clayton

A Study of Whois Privacy and Proxy Service Abuse

Long time readers will recall that last year ICANN published the draft report of our study into the abuse of privacy and proxy services when registering domain names.
At WEIS 2014 I will present our academic paper summarising what we have found — and the summary (as the slides for the talk indicate) is very straightforward:

  • when criminals register domain names for use in online criminality they don’t provide their names and addresses;
  • we collected substantial data to show that this is generally true;
  • in doing so we found that the way in which contact details are hidden varies somewhat depending upon the criminal activity and this gives new insights;
  • meantime, people calling for changes to domain ‘privacy’ and ‘proxy’ services “because they are used by criminals” must understand:
    • the impact of such a policy change on other registrants
    • the limitations of such a policy change on criminals

To give just one example, the registrants of the domain names used for fake pharmacies are the group that uses privacy and proxy services the most (55%) : that’s because a key way in which such pharmacy domains are suppressed is to draw attention to invalid details having been provided when the domain was registered. Privacy and proxy services hide this fakery. In contrast, the registrants of domains that are used to supply child sexual images turn to privacy and proxy services just 29% of the time (only just higher than banks — 28%)… but drawing attention to fallacious registration details is not the approach that is generally taken for this type of content.

Our work provides considerable amounts of hard data to inform the debates around changing the domain Whois system to significantly improve accuracy and usefulness and to prevent misuse. Abolishing privacy and proxy services, if this was even possible, would affect a substantial amount of lawful activity — while criminals currently using these services might be expected to adopt the methods of their peers and instead provide incomplete and inaccurate data. However, insisting that domain registration data was always complete and accurate would mean a great many lawful registrations would need to be updated.

Ghosts of Banking Past

Bank names are so tricksy — they all have similar words in them… and so it’s common to see phishing feeds with slightly the wrong brand identified as being impersonated.

However, this story is about how something the way around has happened, in that AnonGhost, a hacker group, believe that they’ve defaced “Yorkshire Bank, one of the largest United Kingdom bank” and there’s some boasting about this to be found at

However, it rather looks to me as if they’ve hacked an imitation bank instead! A rather less glorious exploit from the point of view of potential admirers.
Continue reading Ghosts of Banking Past

Don't believe what you read in the papers

Yesterday the heads of “MI5”, “MI6” and GCHQ appeared before the Intelligence Security Committee of Parliament. The uncorrected transcript of their evidence is now online (or you can watch the video).

One of the questions fielded by Andrew Parker (“MI5”) was how many terrorist plots there had been over the past ten years. According to the uncorrected transcript (and this accords with listening to the video — question starts at 34:40) he said:

I think the number since… if I go back to 2005, rather than ten years… 7/7 is that there have been 34 plots towards terrorism that have been disrupted in this country, at all sizes and stages. I have referred publicly and previously, and my predecessors have, to the fact that one or two of those were major plots aimed at mass casualty that have been attempted each year. Of that 34, most of them, the vast majority, have been disrupted by active detection and intervention by the Agencies and the police. One or two of them, a small number, have failed because they just failed. The plans did not come together. But the vast majority by intervention.

I understand that to mean 34 plots over 8 years most but not all of which were disrupted, rather than just discovered. Of these, one or two per year were aimed at causing mass casualties (that’s 8 to 16 of them). I find it really quite surprising that such a rough guess of 8 to 16 major plots was not remarked upon by the Committee — but then they were being pretty soft generally in what they asked about.

The journalists who covered the story heard this all slightly differently, both as to how many plots were foiled by the agencies and how many were aimed at causing mass casualties!
Continue reading Don't believe what you read in the papers

A Study of Whois Privacy and Proxy Service Abuse

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.

Traceability in the Queen's Speech

The Queen’s speech at today’s state opening of Parliament includes the prediction:

“In relation to the problem of matching Internet protocol addresses, my Government will bring forward proposals to enable the protection of the public and the investigation of crime in cyberspace”

This is all that remains of the Home Office’s ambition to bring forward a revised version of the Draft Communications Data Bill that two Parliamentary Select Committees were so unimpressed by, and which the Liberal Democrats have declined to support.

The sole issue on which there appears to be political consensus is that “something must be done” about the traceability failure that regularly occurs when the Internet is accessed from a smartphone. The shortage of IPv4 addresses means that the mobile companies cannot give each smartphone a unique IP address — so hundreds of users share the same IP address with only the TCP/UDP source port number distinguishing their traffic. Because this sharing is done very dynamically the mobile phone companies find it problematic to record the source port mapping, and they have argued that the way the EU Data Retention Directive is written they have no obligation to make and keep such records.

I wrote about this issue at some length on this blog in January 2010, although until very recently the Home Office considered it to be tantamount to a state secret and were extremely coy about discussing it in the public.

The Queen’s “bring forward proposals” phrase appears to cover a range of options:

  • the mobile companies decide that they can manage to log the source port mapping data after all;
  • the Home Office pays for new kit at the mobile companies that will allow source port mapping to be done;
  • there is a short bill (or clause in another bill) that requires the logging to be done (this might avoid any question of payments being ultra vires, or would ensure compliance by companies (possibly broadband suppliers) that looked like becoming stragglers;
  • there are discussions but nothing happens at all — perhaps because the tide turns against Data Retention as being a necessary and proportionate policy. A number of other EU countries have found it to be incompatible with fundamental human rights.

The Open Rights Group (ORG) have recently produced a pamphlet (available online here) setting out how surveillance might be better approached in this century. I contributed the chapter on the technical issues…

… if you don’t have time to read the whole thing then the New Statesman has an edited version of my chapter; and you can watch a short video of myself (and two other contributors) explaining the major issues.

Dangerous Blogs Act

The UK Government are currently in a tremendous rush to legislate (and create a Royal Charter) before the political consensus around “implementing Leveson” evaporates. Their proposals catch not just the print media, but also online publications. That’s only proper — a newspaper should meet the same integrity standards for their journalism whether it appears in ink and paper, or on their website.

However, the Governments approach has not been to describe the activity that they wish to regulate, but to describe the various media involved and then try to write exceptions to avoid regulating the whole Internet. Those exceptions are poorly thought out and will have all sorts of unintended consequences. They might even include this blog!
Continue reading Dangerous Blogs Act

Identifying file sharers — the US approach

Last Friday’s successful appeal in the Golden Eye case will mean that significantly more UK-based broadband users will shortly be receiving letters that say that they appear to have been participating in file sharing activity of pornographic films. Recipients of these letters could do worse than to start by consulting this guide as to what to do next.

Although I acted as an expert witness in the original hearing, I was not involved in the appeal since. It was not concerned with technical matters, but was deciding whether Golden Eye could pursue claims for damages on behalf of third party copyright holders (the court says that they may now do so).

Subsequent to the original hearing, I assisted Consumer Focus by producing an expert report on how evidence in file sharing cases should be collected and processed. I wrote about this here in July.

In September, at the request of Consumer Focus, I attended a presentation given by Ms Marianne Grant, Senior Vice President of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in which she outlined the way in which rights holders in the United States were proposing to monitor unauthorised file sharing of copyright material.

I had a number of concerns about these proposals and I wrote to Consumer Focus to set these out. I have now noted (somewhat belatedly, hence this holiday season blog post) that Consumer Focus have made this letter available online, along with their own letter to the MPAA.

So 2013 looks like being “interesting times” for Internet traceabity — with letters going out in bulk to UK consumer from Golden Eye, and the US “six strikes” process forecast to roll out early next year (albeit it’s been forecast to start in November 2012, July 2012 and many dates before that, so we shall see).

Since I was passing…

When you register an Internet domain name in “.com” (and some other top level domains) you have the choice of using a “privacy” or “proxy” service rather than having your name and contact details recorded within the “whois” systems that provide a public record of domain name ownership.

A privacy service will record that you are the owner of the domain name but your contact details will be hidden. A proxy service will hide your identity as well.

The privacy-conscious use these services to avoid disclosing information about themselves (and to avoid the trivial amount of spam sent to contact email addresses). The cyber criminals use these services as well — so that it is hard for the Good Guys to link domains into groups and hard for them to argue (in an Al Capone tax evading manner) that “you may not understand this criminality or be convinced this evidence, but just take a look at the invalid details given when registering the domain“.

I’m currently working on a project for ICANN that will measure the prevalance of privacy/proxy usage by different types of cybercriminals… of which more at another time — because at present I’m having a holiday! I went to Palm Cove (just north of Cairns) to see the recent total solar eclipse… and my holiday involves a short(ish) drive south to Melbourne

… and since I was passing Nobby Beach (just south of Brisbane) I took the opportunity to peek at the home of the larger Internet domain name proxy services:
Richard points at's PO Box
whose details appear in whois records like this:
Domain Admin (
ID#10760, PO Box 16
Note - All Postal Mails Rejected, visit
Nobby Beach
null,QLD 4218
Tel. +45.36946676

There are at present (according to some 2,584,758 domains associated with You can see why they don’t want any postal mail, because their PO box is merely a standard size:
Close-up of PO Box #16
The reality of course is that you should contact Privacy Protection by email or their website… but then you’d miss out on getting to look at some of the nearby beaches!
View of beach at Surfer's Paradise

Source Ports in ARF Reports

Long time readers may recall my posts from Jan 2010 about the need for security logging to include source port numbers — because of the growth of ‘Carrier Grade NAT’ (CGN) systems that share one IPv4 address between hundreds, possibly thousands, of users. These systems are widely used by the mobile companies and the ‘exhaustion‘ of IPv4 address space will lead to many other ISPs deploying them.

A key impact of CGNs is that if you want to trace back “who did that” you may need to have recorded not only an IP address and an accurate timestamp, but also to be able to provide the source port of the connection. Failure to provide the source port will mean that an ISP using CGN will not be able to do any tracing, because they will be unable to distinguish between hundreds of possible perpetrators. In June 2011 the IETF published an RFC (6302) which sets out chapter and verse for this issue and sets out Best Practice for security logging systems.

Earlier this year, at the M3AAWG meeting in San Francisco, I talked with the people who have developed the Abuse Reporting Format (ARF). The idea of ARF is that abuse reports will be in standard format — allowing the use of automation at both sender and receiver. Unfortunately ARF didn’t include a field for the source port….

… but it does now, because RFC 6692 has recently been published. My name is on it, but in reality all of the work on it that mattered was done by Murray Kucherawy who wrote the initial draft, who has tweaked the text to address working group concerns and who has guided it through the complexities of the IETF process. Thanks to Murray, the mechanisms for dealing with abuse have now become just a little bit better.

Online traceability: Who did that?

Consumer Focus have recently published my expert report on the issues that arise when attempting to track down people who are using peer to peer (P2P) systems to share copyright material without appropriate permissions. They have submitted this report to Ofcom who have been consulting on how they should regulate this sort of tracking down when the Digital Economy Act 2010 (DEA) mechanisms that are intended to prevent unlawful file sharing finally start to be implemented, probably sometime in 2014.

The basic idea behind the DEA provisions is that the rights holders (or more usually specialist companies) will join the P2P systems and download files that are being shared unlawfully. Because the current generation of P2P systems fails to provide any real anonymity, the rights holders will learn the IP addresses of the wrongdoers. They will then consult public records at RIPE (and the other Regional Internet Registries) to learn which ISPs were allocated the IP addresses. Those ISPs will then be approached and will be obliged, by the DEA, to consult their records and tell the appropriate account holder that someone using their Internet connection has been misbehaving. There are further provisions for telling the rights holders about repeat offenders, and perhaps even for “technical measures” to disrupt file sharing traffic.

From a technical point of view, the traceability part of the DEA process can (in principle) be made to work in a robust manner. However, there’s a lot of detail to get right in practice, both in recording the data generated by the P2P activity and within the ISPs systems — and history shows that mistakes are often made. I have some first hand experience of this, my report refers to how I helped the police track down a series of traceability mistakes that were made in a 2006 murder case! Hence I spend many pages in my report explaining what can go wrong and I set out in considerable detail the sort of procedures that I believe that Ofcom should insist upon to ensure that mistakes are rare and are rapidly detected.

My report also explains the difficulties (in many cases the insuperable difficulties) that the account holder will have in determining the individual who was responsible to the P2P activity. Consumer Focus takes the view that “this makes the proposed appeals process flawed and potentially unfair and we ask Government to rethink this process”. Sadly, there’s been no sign so far that this sort of criticism will derail the DEA juggernaut, although some commentators are starting to wonder if the rights holders will see the process as passing a cost/benefit test.