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ICANN's global domains could increase phishing attacks

Allowing different character sets on the internet could leave users open to new kinds of phishing and web attacks.

security threat

Allowing non-Latin characters in domain names could increase phishing attacks and damage web security, according to IT governance organisation ISACA.

ISACA said that the move by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) could lead to confusion among Western users who were used to reading Latin characters and, potentially, leave them vulnerable.

Peter Wood, member of the ISACA Conference Committee, explained that permitting other languages such as Cyrillic could lead to a significant increase in phishing attacks by replacing Latin letters in conventional web addresses with non-Latin ones.

The Cyrillic lower case A (a') is indistinguishable from Latin lowercase A (also a'), but the code behind it is different. That means for example, you can create a website called Amazon.com with the letter a' as Cyrillic, rather than using a Latin a'.

"Reading it in an email or a web address would look like the real Amazon.com, but if you'd registered that domain with the lower case a' being Cyrillic, they would actually be different," Wood said. "Users would not be able to spot that visually."

Wood said that as a penetration tester, he could think about the code' behind the language and realised very quickly what ICANN's announcement could mean when it came to IT security.

"My immediate thought was that if they were going to allow multiple languages and character sets, you'd end up with the possibility of spammers being able to fool users in a whole new wave of phishing and spoof attacks," he said.

"Historically there have been scams like putting instead of vvw instead of www, which to people looking quickly looks normal," he explained.

He added: "This is taking things a whole notch further, as you can actually use real characters that have a different Unicode value behind it. You can have a legitimately registered site that includes Cyrillic characters."

Wood said big businesses might try and register domains that looked under threat from criminals attempting to take advantage of the issue.

"Obviously in due course the browsers may get updated so they can alert you to it, but I imagine that may be well down the pipeline," he added.

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