DNS Abuse
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Demystifying DNS abuse: Understanding the digital threat landscape  

6 min read
George Pongas

In today's interconnected world, where our lives are significantly shaped by all things digital, it's crucial to understand the various threats lurking in cyberspace. In GoDaddy’s September 2023 blog post on the roles of registrars and hosting providers, we defined the Domain Name System (DNS) and DNS abuse, and how the latter can disrupt the very foundation that all internet users rely upon daily.  

The DNS is akin to a phone book of the internet, ensuring that when you type a website address into your browser, your computer knows where to go. 

It is the backbone of the internet, and its smooth operation is paramount for seamlessly enabling our online experiences. That also makes it a prime target for cybercriminals seeking to exploit its vulnerabilities.  

To comprehend the complexities of DNS abuse, this blog post will explore its various forms, how it impacts the internet ecosystem and the challenges we collectively face in addressing this growing concern. 

Expanding on DNS abuse 

DNS abuse occurs when the DNS is exploited for malicious purposes, leading to a cascade of cyberthreats that can impact individuals, businesses and even entire nations.  

Let’s take a closer look at the various forms of DNS abuse:  

  • Botnets: Collections of internet-connected computers that have been infected with malware and commanded to perform activities under the control of a remote administrator. 
  • Malware: Malicious software that spreads through compromised websites, infecting devices and networks, leading to unauthorized access, data theft and potentially rendering systems inoperable. 
  • Pharming: When attackers redirect traffic to fraudulent websites without users' knowledge or consent. They manipulate DNS settings or deploy malicious software to deceive users into believing they are accessing legitimate sites, often for the purpose of stealing sensitive information. 
  • Phishing: When cybercriminals create deceptive or fraudulent websites resembling trustworthy ones, tricking users into divulging confidential information like passwords or financial details. Some phishing campaigns enable users to install software with malware. 
  • Spam: Unsolicited bulk email, where the recipient has not granted permission for the message to be sent, and where the message was sent as part of a larger collection of messages, all having substantively identical content. 

Impact on the internet ecosystem 

DNS abuse undermines the very foundation of a secure internet. It erodes user trust, hampers online business and has the potential to facilitate the compromise of digital infrastructure.

The widespread nature of this threat makes it essential for us, as a collective, to address this issue comprehensively. 

Here are a few examples of the detrimental impact on our online ecosystem: 

1 - Erosion of trust

a - Exploited domain names may damage a company's or individual's reputation, leading to brand damage. 

b - Prolonged exposure to DNS abuse can erode general trust in online platforms.  

2 - Financial losses

a - Organizations and individuals may incur significant costs in combating DNS abuse, affecting their financial performance.

b - Consumer fraud can occur when end users lose money through phishing schemes that manipulate DNS records. 

3 - Operational disruptions

a- DNS attacks like distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) can result in service unavailability or downtime, impacting business continuity.

b - DNS spoofing can lead to unauthorized data access creating operational emergencies. 

4 - Regulatory repercussions

a- DNS abuse might result in compliance failures, where there are breaches of data protection laws, leading to penalties.

b - Proliferation of DNS abuse increases scrutiny, inviting more stringent regulatory controls for domain management. 

Challenges in addressing DNS abuse: A collective responsibility 

Addressing DNS abuse is a multifaceted and ongoing challenge. The constantly evolving tactics of cybercriminals, coupled with the vastness of the internet, make it difficult to combat these threats effectively. And cybercriminals are only getting smarter. Below are some of the challenges registries and registrars face in combatting DNS abuse. 

  • Lack of a universally accepted definition: Many internet users do not (nor should they have to) understand the many layers of the DNS infrastructure and the varied services that run on top of it. Similarly, there isn’t a universal understanding of what aspects of DNS abuse are best handled by registries and registrars, and what should be addressed by other actors in the internet ecosystem, including web hosts, internet service providers (ISPs) and other content providers. With this lack of understanding, there is a challenge to universally define DNS abuse, one that fits all audiences, leading to ambiguity in identifying and responding to malicious activities across different platforms and organizations. The remit of registries and registrars is limited to the definition of DNS abuse articulated above. Broader education and information about the available mitigation tools in the registry and registrar toolbox can help set expectations about these entities’ ability to take action and highlight areas where additional efforts are necessary. Registries and registrars – including GoDaddy and GoDaddy Registry – play a pivotal role in managing internet resources, making them frontline defenders against DNS abuse. 
  • Contractual limitations: Registries and registrars are bound by contractual agreements with the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). As currently written, these contracts do not provide clear expectations when handling DNS abuse, often resulting in inaction due to confusion leading to delays in taking necessary actions. Additionally, legal frameworks governing these contracts are not equipped to handle rapidly evolving cyberthreats. This can hinder the ability of registries and registrars to swiftly respond to DNS abuse incidents, allowing malicious activities to persist. Clarifying and updating these contracts that require action and permit adaptive responses is crucial for effective mitigation. 
  • International complexity: The internet operates globally, making coordination between international entities, each with their own policies and regulations, complex and sometimes inconsistent. 

The need for an adaptable approach to combatting DNS abuse is urgent.

The ideal approach allows for nuanced understanding across various sectors while empowering those in charge to implement robust security measures.

Cooperation between registries, registrars, ISPs, governments, private sector entities and community interest groups is crucial. Sharing information, implementing robust cybersecurity policies and raising awareness among users are vital steps towards mitigating DNS abuse. 

Securing our digital future together 

In our exploration of DNS abuse, we are not merely dissecting digital threats; we are acknowledging the need for collective vigilance, education and action to preserve the integrity of our online world. Understanding DNS abuse is the first step toward creating a safer digital environment.  

Stay tuned as we delve deeper into the strategies and solutions our industry is advancing to help safeguard the internet ecosystem for current and future generations.