Subdomain takeovers pose a significant and often overlooked threat to website security. In today's digital age, almost every business has a website to promote, inform, and provide resources to visitors. Websites that use multiple subdomains risk exposing themselves to cyberattacks.
Subdomain takeovers can lead to data breaches and reputational damage. However, these risks can be minimized with the right strategies, and your organization can stay protected. This blog post will provide an in-depth understanding of subdomain takeovers, their impact on organizations, and the best practices for safeguarding your website against potential takeovers.
What is a Subdomain Takeover?
It is important to understand what a domain is in the domain name system (DNS) context to comprehend what subdomain takeovers are and how hackers can exploit them. A domain is the main web address of a website, such as "example.com." Within this domain, subdomains can serve different functions or contain different content, such as "blog.example.com" or "shop.example.com."
A subdomain takeover happens when an attacker exploits a vulnerable subdomain and takes control of it. This usually occurs when a subdomain, as part of the DNS configurations, points to an external service like a cloud provider (Amazon, Azure, Microsoft), and that service is misconfigured or retired.
Attackers can claim that the DNS entry for that subdomain is still intact, and the service it points to becomes available for registration. They can then deploy malicious content, turning the subdomain into a launchpad for phishing campaigns and other cyber threats.
How do Subdomain Takeovers Occur?
Every domain, governed by the domain name system, has a set of records in the DNS zone associated with its IP addresses. Among these records is the CNAME or canonical name record, which directs a subdomain to another target domain or service.
Vulnerabilities arise when the external service, often hosted by cloud providers, is no longer active or incorrectly configured. If the nameservers still have the DNS record pointing to this service, it leaves the organizations at risk of subdomain takeover.
Here are some common scenarios of subdomain takeover attacks:
- Orphaned Services: A company might create an app on its website using the subdomain “marketing.example.com” for a marketing campaign. Once the campaign ends, if the DNS configuration is unchanged, attackers can exploit this oversight and take over the subdomain.
- Expired Third-Party Accounts: Companies might rely on third-party platforms like AWS from Amazon or GitHub for web applications. If the account lapses but the DNS still points there, it becomes an attractive attack vector for malicious entities.
- Migration Oversights: During website migrations, old subdomains may get overlooked. If a company switches its hosting provider but doesn't audit all subdomain configurations during the move, some subdomains might be left pointing to the old, now potentially unclaimed, hosting service.
What is the Impact of Subdomain Takeovers?
Subdomain takeovers can have severe consequences for organizations. These can include:
- Reputational Damage: One of the immediate effects of a subdomain takeover is the tarnishing of an organization's reputation. Customers may attempt to access a promotional subdomain of a reputable brand only to find questionable or offensive content. Even if fixed quickly, such incidents can damage a brand’s perception and negatively impact customer trust.
- Phishing and Data Theft: Malicious actors can craft convincing phishing campaigns using a hijacked subdomain. Unsuspecting users may input sensitive data, thinking they're on an official site. This data might include session cookies, personal details, or financial data.
Take this example: Suppose a bank inadvertently left a subdomain vulnerable related to a past promotional event. An attacker, seizing this opportunity, could set up a page mimicking the bank's login portal. Customers, trusting the legitimate-looking URL, might then input their credentials, granting attackers potential access to thousands of bank accounts and sensitive data.
Top Strategies to Prevent Subdomain Takeovers
Ensuring the safety of subdomains has become an integral part of any website’s cybersecurity posture. Below are a few top strategies to prevent subdomain takeovers, protect your websites, and strengthen your digital assets.
Regularly Audit and Clean DNS Records
It is important to regularly review your DNS records, especially CNAME records, to ensure the safety and accuracy of your domain configurations. Regular DNS configuration reviews, especially CNAME and TXT records, are crucial.
Removing or updating any outdated or irrelevant subdomain entries that point to third-party services that are no longer in use prevents vulnerable subdomains that attackers could take advantage of. By proactively reviewing your DNS records, you can ensure your domain is secure and configured correctly.
Monitor Third-Party Services
When you use third-party services such as cloud platforms, hosting providers, or Content Delivery Networks (CDN) for your subdomains, it's vital to ensure that these services are always active and properly configured.
Additionally, note the expiration dates of these services and the end of their trial periods, as any lapses could potentially direct your subdomain toward an unclaimed address, leaving it vulnerable to security breaches.
Domain Registrar Locking
Protecting your online assets from unauthorized access should be a top priority. One way to do this is to take advantage of domain-locking features most domain registrars provide. These tools prevent unauthorized modifications to your DNS settings, making it harder for hackers to access your website.
Additionally, enabling multi-factor authentication for your domain registrar account adds an extra layer of security, making it even more difficult for unauthorized users to access your account. These security measures can safeguard your online assets from a potential subdomain takeover.
Certificate Transparency Monitoring
Certificate Transparency (CT) logs are a valuable tool for monitoring the issuance of new SSL/TLS certificates for your domain and subdomains.
By diligently overseeing these logs, you can be promptly alerted to any unauthorized certificates, signaling possible subdomain takeover attempts and allowing for timely intervention.
External Attack Surface Management
External Attack Surface Management (EASM) is a crucial part of the defense against subdomain takeovers. It continuously maps and analyzes an organization's digital footprint from an outsider's perspective to identify vulnerabilities and exposures before they can be exploited.
One of its primary functions is to detect misconfigured or abandoned subdomains that may be susceptible to takeovers. Businesses often deploy subdomains for various purposes, but some may be left unattended or improperly configured. EASM tools proactively detect these weak points, enabling organizations to address them promptly.
By ensuring that every digital asset is accounted for and protected, companies can significantly reduce the risk of subdomain hijackings and maintain the integrity of their online presence.
Protect Your Website from Subdomain Takeovers with UpGuard
Subdomain takeovers are just one type of cyber threat your organization will face. If you want to upgrade your organization’s overall approach to cybersecurity, check out UpGuard’s all-in-one external attack surface management platform, BreachSight.
BreachSight helps you understand the risks impacting your external security posture and ensures your assets are constantly monitored and protected. Our user-friendly platform makes it easy to view your organization’s cybersecurity at a glance and communicate internally about risks, vulnerabilities, or current security incidents. Other features include:
- Data Leak Detection: Protect your brand, intellectual property, and customer data with timely detection of data leaks and avoid data breaches
- Continuous Monitoring: Get real-time information and manage exposures, including domains, IPs, and employee credentials
- Attack Surface Reduction: Reduce your attack surface by discovering exploitable vulnerabilities and domains at risk of typosquatting
- Shared Security Profile: Eliminate having to answer security questionnaires by creating an UpGuard Shared Profile
- Workflows and Waivers: Simplify and accelerate how you remediate issues, waive risks, and respond to security queries
- Reporting and Insights: Access tailor-made reports for different stakeholders and view information about your external attack surface