cybersecurity ICANN

ICANN must do more to fight internet security threats

Voiced by Amazon Polly

Dave Piscitello and Lyman Chapin, September 16, 2019, 20:24:36 (UTC), Domain Policy

ICANN and its contracted parties need to do more to tackle security threats, write Dave Piscitello and Lyman Chapin of Interisle Consulting.

The ICANN Registry and Registrar constituencies insist that ICANN’s role with respect to DNS abuse is limited by its Mission “to ensure the stable and secure operation of the internet’s unique identifier systems”, therefore limiting ICANN’s remit to abuse of the identifier systems themselves, and specifically excluding from the remit any harms that arise from the content to which the identifiers point.

In their view, if the harm arises not from the identifier, but from the thing identified, it is outside of ICANN’s remit.

This convenient formulation relieves ICANN and its constituencies of responsibility for the way in which identifiers are used to inflict harm on internet users. However convenient it may be, it is fundamentally wrong.

ICANN’s obligation to operate “for the benefit of the Internet community as a whole” (see Bylaws, “Commitments”) demands that its remit extend broadly to how a domain name (or other Internet identifier) is misused to point to or lure a user or application to content that is harmful, or to host content that is harmful.

Harmful content itself is not ICANN’s concern; the way in which internet identifiers are used to weaponize harmful content most certainly is.

Rather than confront these obligations, however, ICANN is conducting a distracting debate about the kinds of events that should be described as “DNS abuse”. This is tedious and pointless; the persistent overloading of the term “abuse” has rendered it meaningless, ensuring that any attempt to reach consensus on a definition will fail.

ICANN should stop using the term “DNS abuse” and instead use the term “security threat”.

The ICANN Domain Abuse Activity Reporting project and the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) use this term, which is also a term of reference for new TLD program obligations (Spec 11) and related reporting activities. It is also widely used in the operational and cybersecurity communities.

Most importantly, the GAC and the DAAR project currently identify and seek to measure an initial set of security threats that are a subset of a larger set of threats that are recognized as criminal acts in jurisdictions in which a majority of domain names are registered.

ICANN should acknowledge the GAC’s reassertion in its Hyderabad Communique that the set of security threats identified in its Beijing correspondence to the ICANN Board were not an exhaustive list but merely examples. The GAC smartly recognized that the threat landscape is constantly evolving.

ICANN should not attempt to artificially narrow the scope of the term “security threat” by crafting its own definition.

It should instead make use of an existing internationally recognized criminal justice treaty. The Council of Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime is a criminal justice treaty that ICANN could use as a reference for identifying security threats that the Treaty recognizes as criminal acts.

The Convention is recognized by countries in which a sufficiently large percentage domain names are registered that it can serve the community and Internet users more effectively and fairly than any definition that ICANN might concoct.

ICANN should also acknowledge that the set of threats that fall within its remit must include all security events (“realized security threats”) in which a domain name is used during the execution of an attack for purposes of deception, for infringement on copyrights, for attacks that threaten democracies, or for operation of criminal infrastructures that are operated for the purpose of launching attacks or facilitating criminal (often felony) acts.

What is that remit?

ICANN policy and contracts must ensure that contracted parties (registrars and registries) collaborate with public and private sector authorities to disrupt or mitigate:

  • illegal interception or computer-related forgery,
  • attacks against computer systems or devices,
  • illegal access, data interference, or system interference,
  • infringement of intellectual property and related rights,
  • violation of laws to ensure fair and free elections or undermine democracies, and
  • child abuse and human trafficking.

We note that the Convention on Cybercrime identifies or provides Guidance Notes for these most prevalently executed attacks or criminal acts:

  • Spam,
  • Fraud. The forms of fraud that use domain names in criminal messaging include, business email compromise, advance fee fraud, phishing or other identity thefts.
  • Botnet operation,
  • DDoS Attacks: in particular, redirection and amplification attacks that exploit the DNS
  • Identity theft and phishing in relation to fraud,
  • Attacks against critical infrastructures,
  • Malware,
  • Terrorism, and,
  • Election interference.

In all these cases, the misuse of internet identifiers to pursue the attack or criminal activity is squarely within ICANN’s remit.

Registries or registrars should be contractually obliged to take actions that are necessary to mitigate these misuses, including suspension of name resolution, termination of domain name registrations, “unfiltered and unmasked” reporting of security threat activity for both registries and registrars, and publication or disclosure of information that is relevant to mitigating misuses or disrupting cyberattacks.

No one is asking ICANN to be the Internet Police.

The “ask” is to create policy and contractual obligations to ensure that registries and registrars collaborate in a timely and uniform manner. Simply put, the “ask” is to oblige all of the parties to play on the same team and to adhere to the same rules.

This is unachievable in the current self-regulating environment, in which a relatively small number of outlier registries and registrars are the persistent loci of extraordinary percentages of domain names associated with cyberattacks or cybercrimes and the current contracts offer no provisions to suspend or terminate their operations.

This is a guest editorial written by Dave Piscitello and Lyman Chapin, of security consultancy Interisle Consulting Group. Interisle has been an occasional ICANN security contractor, and Piscitello until last year was employed as vice president of security and ICT coordination on ICANN staff. The views expressed in this piece do not necessary reflect DI’s own.