Extra Considerations for Domain and Registrar Security

Registering a domain name is probably the easiest step in the pipeline from cool idea to cool project. We’ve all got a few “cool idea” domains registered and sitting around, right? Assuming you actually do something with that cool domain you’ll probably pick a registrar, set up your nameservers, and forget it. You’ll rarely log back into your registrar.

However, your domain name is one of the most important links in the availability and security of your projects. Below are some extra considerations I believe you should explore while deciding where and how you want to register your domains.

Choosing a registrar

Choose a well-known and established registrar with transparent ownership information. Their legal and registration policies should be easy to find and read. They should be easy to contact and quick to respond to inquiries. You’ll rarely contact your registrar but when you do it’s likely to be for a significant or time-sensitive issue.

Supporting two-factor authentication in their control panel is a no brainer. There should be immutable logging and alerting of all significant activity on the account such as user logins or changes to domain configuration. You should be able to set a contact email address for the registrar separate from the address listed in your domain’s WHOIS contact information. Preferably one that isn’t hosted on a domain in the same account in case there’s ever an issue with your name servers causing email deliverability issues.

Consider ccTLDs carefully

Country code top-level domains, e.g. .us, .ca, .uk are intermingled in politics. Choosing to use a ccTLD, especially a foreign-to-you ccTLD can cause your domain to be affected by the politics of the ccTLD’s nation. For example, a country could leave a union, a government could collapse, or a people could reclaim their home from colonial powers.

Registrar and registry locks

First as a reminder, your registrar is the company you paid and who registered the domain name for you e.g. GoDaddy, Namecheap, etc… The registry is the entity that operates the top-level domain you registered within. For example, .com and .net’s registry is Verisign. Every top-level domain has a registry that operates it.

Domains can be affected by various status codes called EPP codes. There are two kinds, client codes and server codes. Client codes can be added and removed by the registrar and server codes can only be added and removed by the registry. There are quite a few of these codes that mean a plethora of different things but we’re just going to pay attention to the ones that prevent the transfer, change, or deletion of your domain.

These are the codes we care about for the purposes of this post:

https://www.icann.org/epp#clientTransferProhibited

https://www.icann.org/epp#clientUpdateProhibited

https://www.icann.org/epp#clientDeleteProhibited

https://www.icann.org/epp#serverTransferProhibited

https://www.icann.org/epp#serverUpdateProhibited

https://www.icann.org/epp#serverDeleteProhibited

You can see what codes are enacted by looking up your domain’s WHOIS information.

Registrar locks

Your registrar at minimum should have already registrar locked your domain by applying the clientTransferProhibited status code. Thus causing registrars to reject transfer requests for your domain name. You’d need to log into your control panel or contact the registrar to remove this status code before your domain could be transferred out of your control. This is probably enough for most people.

Registry locks

If your domain is high value and likely to be the recipient of frequent targeted social engineering attacks you should registry lock it. Doing this makes changes to your domain much more difficult both for you and would be attackers. Your registrar will have to manually contact the registry on your behalf and ask for the specific status codes to be added or removed.

For example, if an attacker was able to log into your registrar control panel and serverUpdateProhibited and serverTransferProhibited were applied to your domain they still wouldn’t be able to make changes to authoritative name servers or transfer the domain until an actual person reviewed it and asked the registry to remove the status codes. This out-of-band step adds a significant layer of difficulty.

Registry locks are difficult to get applied on most registrars as they add significant overhead to managing your domains. They are usually only applied by enterprise focused registrars like CSC or MarkMonitor. If you’re using a retail registrar you’ll probably have to call and specifically ask for registry locks be applied. Even then they may not enact them for you.

Enterprise registrars are enterprise expensive so if you’re not an enterprise and you really want to registry lock your domain a workaround is registering yourself as a reseller on OpenSRS, transferring your domains to yourself, and paying them $300 per domain to have them manage the registry lock.

WHOIS phishing and email bombs

To prevent targeted phishing attacks WHOIS information should not identify a specific individual. Use a generic name like ‘DNS Admin’, a generic email address like ‘domains@example.com’, and a specifically purposed phone number for domain management.

Adversaries will sometimes use an email bomb on your WHOIS contact addresses to hide important alerts from your registrar in an avalanche of spam in your inbox. This was part of the attempt to hijack Fastmail’s domains in 2014. Make sure you’re filtering and labeling your email in such a way that important emails from your registrar are always visible to you.

Understand who is proxying your WHOIS and why it matters

When using a WHOIS proxy service take care to note who is running the proxy service. It’s usually your registrar or a subsidiary of the registrar who runs these but not always. Proxies replace your information in the WHOIS database with their own. This keeps your information private but can potentially open you up to exploitation as the information in WHOIS is frequently used for management of your domain. For example, the ‘Administrator Contact’ email address in WHOIS is the email address used to verify ownership of a domain. This address is frequently used in transfer requests as well as domain validated TLS certificates.

Written on April 21, 2021