Compromised or Attacker-Owned: A Large Scale Classification and Study of Hosting Domains of Malicious URLs


Ravindu De Silva, SCoRe Lab and Qatar Computing Research Institute; Mohamed Nabeel, Qatar Computing Research Institute; Charith Elvitigala, SCoRe Lab; Issa Khalil and Ting Yu, Qatar Computing Research Institute; Chamath Keppitiyagama, University of Colombo School of Computing


The mitigation action against a malicious website may differ greatly depending on how that site is hosted. If it is hosted under a private apex domain, where all its subdomains and pages are under the apex domain owner's direct control, we could block at the apex domain level. If it is hosted under a public apex domain though (e.g., a web hosting service provider), it would be more appropriate to block at the subdomain level. Further, for the former case, the private apex domain may be legitimate but compromised, or may be attacker-generated, which, again, would warrant different mitigation actions: attacker-owned apex domains could be blocked permanently, while only temporarily for compromised ones.

In this paper, we study over eight hundred million VirusTotal (VT) URL scans from Aug. 1, 2019 to Nov. 18, 2019 and build the first content agnostic machine learning models to distinguish between the above mentioned different types of apex domains hosting malicious websites. Specifically, we first build a highly accurate model to distinguish between public and private apex domains. Then we build additional models to further distinguish compromised domains from attacker-owned ones. Utilizing our trained models, we conduct a large-scale study of the host domains of malicious websites. We observe that even though public apex domains are less than 1% of the apexes hosting malicious websites, they amount to a whopping 46.5% malicious web pages seen in VT URL feeds during our study period. 19.5% of these public malicious websites are compromised. Out of the remaining websites (53.5%), which are hosted on private apexes, we observe that attackers mostly compromise benign websites (65.6%) to launch their attacks, whereas only 34.4% of malicious websites are hosted on domains registered by attackers. Overall, we observe the concerning trend that the majority (81.7%) of malicious websites are hosted under apex domains that attackers do not own.

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@inproceedings {272220,
author = {Ravindu De Silva and Mohamed Nabeel and Charith Elvitigala and Issa Khalil and Ting Yu and Chamath Keppitiyagama},
title = {Compromised or Attacker-Owned: A Large Scale Classification and Study of Hosting Domains of Malicious URLs},
booktitle = {30th {USENIX} Security Symposium ({USENIX} Security 21)},
year = {2021},
url = {},
publisher = {{USENIX} Association},
month = aug,