Security researchers at Princeton University, Google, and three other organizations have developed a software tool designed to let domain name registration companies detect and block people attempting to register domains intended for malicious purposes.
The researchers provided details of the new Proactive Recognition and Elimination of Domain Abuse at Time-Of-Registration (PREDATOR) in a technical paper presented at the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security this week.
They described the tool as an evolution of existing domain reputation systems that work by first observing domain use and then assigning a reputation score to it based on type of content hosted and other factors.
The goal with PREDATOR is to equip security professional and domain registrars with the ability to do such reputation scoring before the actual domain registration takes place by observing and evaluating so-called time-of-registration features.
"The intuition has always been that the way that malicious actors use online resources somehow differs fundamentally from the way legitimate actors use them," Nick Feamster, acting director of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy said in a statement announcing PREDATOR.
"We were looking for those signals: what is it about a domain name that makes it automatically identifiable as a bad domain name?"
Early evaluations of the tool using registration logs of .com and .net domains over a five-month period showed it to achieve a 70% detection rate and a false-positive rate of 0.35%, the researchers claimed in the paper. The results suggest the tool offers an effective and early first line of defense against DNS domain misuse, they noted. “It predicts malicious domains when they are registered, which is typically days or weeks earlier than existing DNS blacklists.”
Researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of California, Berkeley, Google, the International Computer Science Institute and Princeton University contributed to PREDATOR.
The work on PREDATOR builds on previous research focused on evaluating DNS preregistration data to predict future DNS traffic, says Feamster in comments to Dark Reading. He pointed to a patent that Verisign filed in 2012 as one example of previous work in this area.
The idea is to make it harder for threat actors to register websites for sending spam, for launching phishing and denial-of-service campaigns and other malicious activities. Cybercriminals routinely register thousands of domains on a daily basis for such purposes.
The Anti-Phishing Work Group for instance counted nearly 630,500 sites being used for phishing alone between Q1 and Q3 last year, with the US hosting the most number of such sites.
Others have worked to fight domain name abuse in different ways. Recently, researchers at Georgia Tech for instance demonstrated a method for spotting attackers hiding behind reputable domains or hijacking domains previously associated with malicious uses. Last year, internet pioneer Paul Vixie proposed introducing a short waiting period between when a domain is registered and when it goes live, to deter abuse.
Current blacklisting tools only allow for after-the-fact action. So criminals are able to launch new domains to support their activities almost as quickly as old ones are taken down. “If we can identify in advance that a DNS domain name is going to be used for malicious purposes we could prevent it from being registered,” Feamster says.
People registering domain names with malicious intent often exhibit certain behaviors, he says. For example, someone planning on using domain names in an attack campaign might register hundreds and even thousands of domains over a very small window of time. Similarly, it is not unusual for such domains to have names that are not necessarily human readable or names that are minor variations of a single name, he says.
By detecting such patterns and blocking automatic domain registration until vetting takes place, registrars can make it much harder for malicious actors to abuse DNS domains, Feamster says.
The hope is to be able to make the technology commercially available eventually, he adds.
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