The federal agency in charge of issuing .gov domain names is enacting new requirements for validating the identity of people requesting them. The additional measures come less than four months after KrebsOnSecurity published research suggesting it was relatively easy for just about anyone to get their very own .gov domain.
In November’s piece It’s Way Too Easy to Get a .gov Domain Name, an anonymous source detailed how he obtained one by impersonating an official at a small town in Rhode Island that didn’t already have its own .gov.
“I had to [fill out] ‘an official authorization form,’ which basically just lists your admin, tech guy, and billing guy,” the source said. “Also, it needs to be printed on ‘official letterhead,’ which of course can be easily forged just by Googling a document from said municipality. Then you either mail or fax it in. After that, they send account creation links to all the contacts.”
While what my source did was technically wire fraud (obtaining something of value via the Internet through false pretenses), cybercriminals bent on using fake .gov domains to hoodwink Americans likely would not be deterred by such concerns.
“I never said it was legal, just that it was easy,” the source told KrebsOnSecurity. “I assumed there would be at least ID verification. The deepest research I needed to do was Yellow Pages records.”
Now, Uncle Sam says in a few days all new .gov domain applications will include an additional authorization step.
“Effective on March 10, 2020, the DotGov Program will begin requiring notarized signatures on all authorization letters when submitting a request for a new .gov domain,” reads a notice published March 5 by the U.S. General Services Administration, which oversees the .gov space.
“This is a necessary security enhancement to prevent mail and wire fraud through signature forgery in obtaining a .gov domain,” the statement continues. “This step will help maintain the integrity of .gov and ensure that .gov domains continue to be issued only to official U.S. government organizations.”
The GSA didn’t say whether it was putting in place any other safeguards, such as more manual verification of .gov domain applications. It certainly hadn’t followed up on the fraudulent application from my source before granting him the .gov domain name he sought (exeterri[.]gov). The GSA only did that four days after I asked them for comment, and approximately 10 days after they’d already granted the phony domain request.
“GSA is working with the appropriate authorities and has already implemented additional fraud prevention controls,” the agency said in a written statement at the time, without elaborating on what those additional controls might be.
But I’m left to wonder: If I’m a bad guy who’s willing to forge someone’s signature and letterhead in a fraudulent application for a .gov domain, why wouldn’t I also be willing to fake a notarization? Especially when there are plenty of services in the cybercrime underground that specialize in spoofing these phony attestations for a small fee.
“This is a classic case of ‘we must do something’ and this is certainly something,” said John Levine, a domain name expert, consultant and author of the book The Internet for Dummies.
Levine said it would not be terribly difficult for the GSA to do a slightly more thorough job of validating .gov domain requests, but that some manual verification probably would be required. Still, he said, it’s not clear how big a threat fake .gov domains really are.
“As far as we know, only one person tried to fake a .gov,” Levine said. “Maybe this is good enough?”
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has argued that more needs to be done to secure the .gov domain space, and is making a play to wrest control over the process from the GSA.
The DOTGOV bill, introduced in October 2019, would “ensure that only authorized users obtain a .gov domain, and proactively validate existing .gov holders,” according to a statement CISA shared with this author last year.