The Challenge of Defining DNS Abuse

by Peter Lowe, DNS Abuse Policy Ambassador
Thursday, May 19th, 2022

DNS Abuse is a pretty widely used term. On the surface, it might seem like a simple term that's easily understood. But when you look more closely, the definition depends on your perception of the issue—and can be defined both broadly, or more narrowly.

What's FIRST?

FIRST of all, I should probably explain what FIRST is—and why I'm writing this.

FIRST is the Forum of Incident Responders and Security Teams. Incident Responders are interested in DNS Abuse because it's a large part of the incidents that they have to respond to—they need to know how to handle it and who to involve.

FIRST has tons of Special Interest Groups (SIGs), one of which is the DNS Abuse SIG. Over the past 18 months, we've been delving into what DNS Abuse actually is, how different stakeholders see it, and how they're affected by it.

With support from the DNS Abuse SIG, I have been appointed by FIRST as its ambassador on DNS Abuse.

You can read more about the SIG here: One of its core goals is to provide a common language and understanding of DNS Abuse.

But things aren't as simple as we thought… at FIRST.

So why is it a challenge?

Really, the challenge is that it means different things to different people.

For example, domain name registrars and registries may consider DNS Abuse the registration of domain names with a malicious intent.

But for a DNS resolver, they might consider DNS Abuse much more broadly—including things like DDoS attacks and fast-flux domains.

This results in a landscape where each stakeholder has a relatively narrow vision of what encompasses DNS Abuse, and there's no universal language that can help combat it.

So who else is involved?

The plethora of stakeholders

Plenty of people have some kind of investment in DNS Abuse. These include:

Because there are so many people involved, conversations are difficult about how to even define, let alone deal with, incidents of DNS Abuse.

The myriads of anti-abuse groups

Nobody denies that "DNS Abuse" needs to be combated in some way. As a result many organisations, frameworks, and yes, Special Interest Groups have been created to try and do so. Some of these include:

Abuse of the DNS vs Abuse via the DNS

An important distinction to make is that there are two main types of DNS abuse.

Abuse of the DNS is very different from abuse via the DNS. There are only a few types of abuse that really attack the DNS itself - things like cache poisoning attacks and DDoS attacks. Most types of abuse are via the DNS: when someone registers a lookalike domain and uses it in a phishing operation, the DNS is actually operating as it should by serving up the domain to the people using it. However, in that case, it's abuse via the DNS because the domain is being used for harm.

So what can be done?

Providing a common language

The first goal of the DNS Abuse SIG is:

Initially, provide a common language and a FIRST-definition of what the global incident response community understands as DNS Abuse in an operational context to protect its constituencies, as well as for purposes of global policy recommendations.

A large part of this is separating DNS abuse into categories (of and via) and defining each type of abuse succinctly. The DNS Abuse SIG is now working on identifying relevant stakeholders for each of the incidents that its constituencies are trying to address. It’s also illustrating where in the “kill chain” each type of abuse occurs, identifying the relevant infrastructure, examples of threat groups from historical incidents that have been associated with the activities, and who or what they are targeting as well as the tactics and techniques being used.

Facilitating conversations

As the DNS Abuse Policy Ambassador (try saying that three times fast), one of the things I hope to do is to help facilitate conversations between the different interested parties. And I want to start off by bringing some much needed visibility between people.

Beating the drum

DNS Abuse isn't going away, but it does sometimes fade from people's consciousness. People start to accept that fake domains are just a thing, so rather than reporting them they block and move on. But this shouldn't be the case: people need to be reminded that there are solutions, and we can make a difference—if stakeholders focus on what they can do and stop passing the hot potato to someone else.