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Executive Summary

This article presents a case study on new applications of domain name system (DNS) tunneling we have found in the wild. These techniques expand beyond DNS tunneling only for command and control (C2) and virtual private network (VPN) purposes.

Malicious actors occasionally employ DNS tunneling as a covert communications channel, because it can bypass conventional network firewalls. This allows C2 traffic and data exfiltration that can remain hidden from some traditional detection methods.

However, we recently detected three recent campaigns using DNS tunneling for purposes outside of traditional C2 and VPN use: scanning and tracking. In scanning, adversaries employ DNS tunneling to scan a victim's network infrastructure and gather information useful for future attacks. In tracking, adversaries use DNS tunneling techniques to track delivery of malicious emails and monitor the use of Content Delivery Networks (CDN).

This article provides a detailed case study that reveals how adversaries have used DNS tunneling for both scanning and tracking. We aim to increase awareness of these new use cases and provide further insight that can help security professionals better protect their networks.

We have built a system to monitor for DNS tunneling, and this detection is embedded in our DNS Security solution. Palo Alto Networks Next-Generation Firewall customers can access this through our DNS Security subscription to help secure their environment against this malicious activity. Customers also receive protection from the threats discussed here through the Advanced URL Filtering subscription.

  • Cortex XDR customers receive protection against the DNS tunneling techniques mentioned in this article through our Cortex XDR Analytics Engine.
  • Advanced WildFire machine-learning models and analysis techniques have been reviewed and updated in light of the IoCs shared in this research.
  • Prisma Cloud protects cloud environments against DNS tunneling techniques mentioned in this article.
  • If you think you might have been compromised or have an urgent matter, contact the Unit 42 Incident Response team.
Related Unit 42 Topics DNS Tunneling, DNS Security

DNS Tunneling

DNS tunneling embeds information into DNS requests and responses in a manner that allows a compromised host to communicate through DNS traffic with a nameserver controlled by an attacker. An example is illustrated below in Figure 1.

A typical use case for DNS tunneling includes the following steps:

  • Attackers first register a domain malicious[.]site and then establish a C2 server that uses DNS tunneling as a communication channel. Attackers have many options to set up this C2 channel, such as by abusing Cobalt Strike.
  • Attackers can create, develop or acquire malware that communicates with the server as a client and send this malware to a compromised client machine.
  • The compromised machine is usually behind a firewall and cannot directly communicate with attackers’ servers. However, the malware can encode the data into the subdomain of malicious[.]site and make a DNS query toward the DNS resolver, as shown in Figure 1.
  • Due to the unique nature of tunneling fully qualified domain names (FQDNs), the DNS resolver cannot find corresponding records from its cache. As a result, the resolver will then conduct recursive DNS queries toward root nameservers, top-level domain (TLD) nameservers and attacker-controlled authoritative nameservers for this domain.
  • Attackers can obtain the decoded data from DNS traffic and manipulate the DNS response to infiltrate malicious data to the client.
Image 1 is a diagram of how data exfiltration and infiltration work with DNS tunneling. The client server communicates with the DNS resolver. Icon for read/write from the cache. From the DNS resolver the addresses communicate with the root name servers, the top level domain name servers and the authoritative name servers.
Figure 1. An overview of data exfiltration and infiltration with DNS tunneling.

How Is DNS Tunneling Hidden?

DNS tunneling is hidden due to three factors.

  • Traditional firewalls can reject unauthorized traffic. However, DNS traffic over User Datagram Protocol (UDP) port 53 is ubiquitous and commonly allowed through firewalls and other network security measures.
  • DNS tunneling is conducted via a logical channel between the compromised client and the attacker’s server, with the implementation of DNS protocol. That means the client machine does not communicate with the attacker's server directly, adding another layer of obscurity.
  • Attackers typically encode data sent during exfiltration and infiltration with their own customized methods, which disguises the data within seemingly legitimate DNS traffic.

How Do Adversaries Leverage DNS Tunneling?

The use of DNS tunneling for C2 purposes enables attackers to establish stealthy and resilient communication channels, facilitating malicious activities such as data exfiltration and infiltration. Well-known campaigns such as DarkHydrus, OilRig, xHunt, SUNBURST and Decoy Dog leverage DNS tunneling for C2.

The DNS types used by attackers include:

  • IPv4 (A)
  • IPv6 (AAAA)
  • Mail exchange (MX)
  • Canonical name (CNAME)
  • Text (TXT) records

Some VPN vendors also use DNS tunneling for legitimate purposes, such as bypassing firewalls to avoid internet censorship or network service charges.

In addition to C2 and VPN purposes, attackers can also use DNS tunneling for tracking and scanning, as we’ve observed in recent tunneling campaigns.

  • DNS tunneling for tracking:
    • Attackers can track victims’ activities with regard to spam, phishing or advertisement contents. They do so by delivering malicious domains to victims with their identity information encoded in subdomain payloads.
  • DNS tunneling for scanning:
    • Attackers can scan network infrastructure by encoding the IP address and timestamp in the tunneling payloads, with spoofed source IP addresses. Then, the attackers are able to discover open resolvers so that they can exploit resolver vulnerabilities to perform DNS attacks – which can lead to malicious redirection or denial of service.

To better understand these two new use cases, our next sections cover the campaigns we have discovered using DNS tunneling for tracking and for scanning.

DNS Tunneling for Tracking

To track a victim's behavior in conventional C2 communications, a threat actor's malware embeds data from a user's actions in URLs that it transmits to a C2 server through web traffic. In DNS tunneling, attackers accomplish the same result by using subdomains in DNS traffic.

In this application of DNS tunneling, an attacker's malware embeds information on a specific user and that user's actions into a unique subdomain of a DNS query. This subdomain is the tunneling payload, and the DNS query for the FQDN uses an attacker-controlled domain.

An authoritative nameserver for the attacker-controlled domain receives the DNS query. This attacker-controlled nameserver stores all DNS queries for the domain. The unique subdomains and timestamps of these DNS queries provide a log of the victim's activity. This is not limited to a single victim, and attackers can use it to track multiple victims from their campaign.

TrkCdn DNS Tunneling Campaign

We call this campaign "TrkCdn" due to the characteristics of the domain names used for its DNS tunneling. Based on our analysis, we believe the DNS tunneling technique used in the TrkCdn campaign is meant to track a victim's interaction with its email content. Our data indicates the attacker targeted 731 potential victims. This campaign used 75 IP addresses for nameservers, resolving 658 attacker-controlled domains.

Each domain only uses a single nameserver IP address, while one nameserver IP address can serve up to 123 domains. These domains use the same DNS configurations and the same encoding method for their subdomains. The attacker registered all domains under [.]com or [.]info TLDs and set domain names by combining two or three root words, which is a practice attackers use to avoid domain generation algorithm (DGA) detection.

A subset of these domains are as follows:

  • simitor[.]com
  • vibnere[.]com
  • edrefo[.]com
  • pordasa[.]info
  • vitrfar[.]info
  • frotel[.]info

A list of these domains along with sample FQDNs, nameservers, nameserver IP addresses and registration dates are shown below in Table 1. Because this campaign leveraged DNS tunneling only under the trk subdomain and configured a CNAME record under the cdn subdomain, we named this campaign TrkCdn.

Domain Sample FQDN Nameservers Nameserver IP Address Registration Date
simitor[.]com 04b16bbbf91be3e2fee2c83151131cf5.trk.simitor[.]com ns1.simitor[.]com


193.9.114[.]43 July 6, 2023
vibnere[.]com a8fc70b86e828ffed0f6b3408d30a037.trk.vibnere[.]com ns1.vibnere[.]com


193.9.114[.]43 June 14, 2023
edrefo[.]com 6e4ae1209a2afe123636f6074c19745d.trk.edrefo[.]com ns1.edrefo[.]com


193.9.114[.]43 July 26, 2023
pordasa[.]info 2c0b9017cf55630f1095ff42d9717732.trk.pordasa[.]info ns1.pordasa[.]info


172.234.25[.]151 Oct. 11, 2022
vitrfar[.]info 0fa17586a20ef2adf2f927c78ebaeca3.trk.vitrfar[.]info ns1.vitrfar[.]info


172.234.25[.]151 Nov. 21, 2022
frotel[.]info 50e5927056538d5087816be6852397f6.trk.frotel[.]info ns1.frotel[.]info


172.234.25[.]151 Nov. 21, 2022

Table 1. A subset of the domains used in the TrkCdn campaign.

Tracking Mechanism

We believe the DNS tunneling technique used in the TrkCdn campaign is meant to track a victim's interaction with its email content. Analysis of DNS traffic for simitor[.]com reveals how attackers could achieve this.

Here, we only show the tracking-relevant DNS configurations used by this tunneling domain. 193.9.114[.]43 served as the same IP address for the root domain, nameservers and cdn.simitor[.]com. This behavior is a common indicator for tunneling domains, because attackers need to build a nameserver for themselves while also trying to reduce attack cost. Therefore, they typically use only a single IP address for both domain hosting and name server.

All *.trk.simitor[.]com are redirected to cdn.simitor[.]com via a wildcard DNS record as shown below.

For the TrkCdn campaign, MD5 hash values represent email addresses in the DNS traffic. These MD5 values are subdomains for the DNS queries of a tunneling payload. For example, an email address of unit42@not-a-real-domain[.]com has an MD5 value of 4e09ef9806fb9af448a5efcd60395815. Therefore, the FQDN of a DNS query for the tunneling payload would be 4e09ef9806fb9af448a5efcd60395815.trk.simitor[.]com.

DNS queries for these FQDNs can act as a tracking mechanism for emails sent by the threat actor. For example, if a victim opens one of these emails, embedded content might automatically generate the DNS query, or a victim could click on a link within the email. However this happens, after an infected host generates a DNS query for the FQDN, the DNS resolver will contact the IP address for the authoritative nameserver of the FQDN. Due to its wildcard configuration, the victim's DNS resolver would obtain the following result:

Hence, even though the FQDNs vary across different targets, they are all forwarded to the same IP address used by cdn.simitor[.]com. This authoritative name server then returns a DNS result that leads to an attacker-controlled server that delivers attacker-controlled content. This content can include advertisements, spam or phishing contents.

For tracking purposes, attackers can query DNS logs from their authoritative nameservers and compare the payload with the hash values of the email addresses. This way, attackers can know when a specific victim opens one of their emails or clicks on a link, and they can monitor campaign performance.

For example, a graph showing the cumulative distribution function (CDF) of DNS queries for FQDNs from the TrkCdn campaign is shown below in Figure 2. This graph shows the total percentage of DNS queries for TrkCdn FQDNs from 0 to 30 days. The graph indicates that approximately 80% of victims view the campaign's emails only once, while an additional 10% view the messages again within approximately one week. Attackers can view this FQDN data from their authoritative nameservers in the same manner.

Image 2 is a graph of the life cycle of a specific domain. The horizontal axis measures the days and the vertical axis measures the percentage.
Figure 2. The CDF of FQDN span days in the TrkCdn campaign.

Domain Lifecycle

By investigating an older domain pordasa[.]info, we conclude that the TrkCdn domain lifecycle goes through four distinct phases. These four phases are as follows:

  • Incubation phase (two to 12 weeks)
    • After the domain registration, attackers only configure the DNS settings and do nothing else, attempting to avoid malicious newly registered domain detection.
  • Active phase (two to three weeks)
    • Attackers actively distribute thousands of FQDNs to the corresponding victims’ email addresses.
  • Tracking phase (nine to 11 months)
    • Victims query the FQDNs, while attackers track their behaviors by obtaining DNS logs.
  • Retirement phase (one year after registration)
    • Attackers typically stop updating the domain registration after one year.

Below, Figure 3 shows an example of this lifecycle for pordasa[.]info. An attacker used this domain for DNS tunneling-style tracking, originally registering it on Oct. 12, 2022.

Image 3 is a graph of the life cycle of a specific domain. The incubation phase lasts 60 days. The active phase starts shortly after. The tracking phase extends to day 270 and the domain registration ends and the retirement phase starts on day 360.
Figure 3. The lifecycle of the pordasa[.]info domain.

TrkCdn Persistence

Until February 2024, we found adversaries using new IP addresses and registering new domains for their authoritative nameservers associated with TrkCdn activity. Attackers registered these domains between Oct. 19, 2020, and Jan. 2, 2024. We analyze the timeline of domain registration and the domain's first use across different IP addresses.

Figure 4 tracks the use of TrkCdn domains associated with 49 IP addresses. As noted in Figure 4, the majority of IP addresses used for TrkCdn's authoritative nameservers lie within the 185.121.0[.]0/16 or the 146.70.0[.]0/16 subnets. This indicates that the threat actor behind TrkCdn tends to use specific hosting providers.

Image 4 is a timeline of domain registration (blue dots) and domain first use (red dots). The horizontal axis shows the timeline, which covers November 2020 through April 2024. The vertical axis shows the IP address. There are many clusters starting in late 2024 and extending into April.
Figure 4. The timeline of TrkCdn domain registration and usage across different IP addresses.

SpamTracker DNS Tunneling Campaign

Our second example is a campaign using DNS tunneling to track spam delivery. Because this campaign uses DNS tunneling for spam tracking, we have nicknamed this campaign "SpamTracker."

This campaign uses a similar tracking mechanism as the TrkCdn campaign. This campaign is related to 44 tunneling domains that have an IP address of 35.75.233[.]210 for its authoritative nameservers.

These domains share the same DGA naming method and subdomain encoding method used by the TrkCdn campaign. Nameservers for the A records of these domains are hosted on IP addresses that fall into the 103.8.88[.]64/27 subnet. This campaign originated from Japan, and most of the targets were part of educational institutions.

This campaign employs emails and website links to deliver spam and phishing content that covers the following subjects:

  • Fortune-telling services
  • Fake package delivery updates
  • Secondary job offers
  • Lifetime free items

Figure 5 shows an example of these emails. The intent of the campaign is to lure victims to click on the links behind which threat actors have concealed their payload in the subdomains.

Image 5 is a screenshot of a SpamTracker campaign. The lines alternate in Japanese characters and English translations.
Figure 5. An email example (and English translation) used in the SpamTracker campaign.

Victims will be redirected to websites containing fraudulent information, such as the fortune-telling services shown in Figure 6.

Image 6 is a screenshot of a fake fortune-telling website. The English title is Jewel Ring. There are Japanese and Chinese characters used on multiple lines.
Figure 6. A fake fortune-telling website in the SpamTracker campaign.

Table 2 lists six domains from this campaign along with an example of FQDNs, the nameservers, nameserver IP addresses and registration times.

Domain Sample FQDN Nameservers Nameserver IP Address Registration Time
wzbhk2ccghtshr[.]com 21pwt2otx07d3et.wzbhk2ccghtshr[.]com ns01.wzbhk2ccghtshr[.]com


35.75.233[.]210 May 15, 2023
epyujbhfhbs35j[.]com y0vkmu2eh896he7.epyujbhfhbs35j[.]com ns01.epyujbhfhbs35j[.]com


35.75.233[.]210 May 15, 2023
8egub9e7s6cz7n[.]com q8udswcmvznk34q.8egub9e7s6cz7n[.]com ns01.8egub9e7s6cz7n[.]com


35.75.233[.]210 May 15, 2023
hjmpfsamfkj5m5[.]com run0ibnpq8r34dj.hjmpfsamfkj5m5[.]com ns01.hjmpfsamfkj5m5[.]com


35.75.233[.]210 May 15, 2023
uxjxfg2ui8k5zk[.]com vfct3phbmc8qsx2.uxjxfg2ui8k5zk[.]com ns01.uxjxfg2ui8k5zk[.]com


35.75.233[.]210 May 15, 2023
cgb488dixfxjw7[.]com htujn1rhh3553tc.cgb488dixfxjw7[.]com ns01.cgb488dixfxjw7[.]com


35.75.233[.]210 May 15, 2023

Table 2. The list of the domains used in the SpamTracker campaign.

DNS Tunneling for Scanning

Network scanning, which seeks vulnerabilities within network infrastructures, is usually the first stage of cyberattacks. However, the use case of DNS tunneling for network scanning is understudied. As a result, uncovering the scanning applications of tunneling campaigns can help us prevent cyberattacks at an early stage, mitigating potential damage.

SecShow DNS Tunneling Campaign

We found a new campaign in which threat actors leverage tunneling to periodically scan a victim's network infrastructure, and then they typically perform reflection attacks. Their malicious actions include the following:

  • Seeking open resolvers
  • Testing resolver delays
  • Exploiting resolver vulnerabilities
  • Obtaining time-to-live (TTL) information.

This campaign generally targets open resolvers. As a result, we find victims mainly come from education, high tech and government fields, where open resolvers are commonly found. This campaign contains three domains, leveraging various subdomains to achieve different network scanning.

We list these three domains along with examples of FQDNs, nameservers, nameserver IP addresses and registration times in Table 3. These domains share the nameserver IP address of 202.112.47[.]45. We named this campaign "SecShow" due to the domain names the attackers used.

Domain Sample FQDN Nameservers Nameserver IP Address Registration Time
secshow[.]net 6a134b4f-1.c.secshow[.]net ns1.c.secshow[.]net.


202.112.47[.]45 July 27, 2023
secshow[.]online 1-103-170-192-121-103-170-192-9.f.secshow[.]online ns.secshow[.]online. 202.112.47[.]45 Nov. 5, 2023
secdns[.]site 0-53aa2a46-202401201-ans-dnssec.l-test.secdns[.]site ns1.l-test.secdns[.]site.


202.112.47[.]45 Dec. 13, 2023

Table 3. The list of the domains used in the SecShow campaign.

SecShow Tunneling Use

SecShow uses different subdomain values for different scanning purposes. Here, we present four use cases to show how attackers scan the networks.

Case 1: bc2874fb-1.c.secshow[.]net

In this FQDN, bc2874fb is a hexadecimal encoding for IP address 188.40.116[.]251 and -1 is a counter to make the FQDN unique while the nameserver domain is c.secshow[.]net.

Attackers first spoof a random source IP address (e.g., 188.40.116[.]251) and make a DNS query to a candidate IP address for the encoded FQDN (bc2874fb-1.c.secshow[.]net). Once the attackers’ authoritative nameserver (c.secshow[.]net) receives a DNS query, they can obtain the incoming resolver’s IP address and the encoded source IP address used for this query.

Attackers repeat this process with different spoofed IP addresses and discover the open resolvers in the networks and the IP addresses that these open resolvers service. This can be the first step for DNS spoofing, DNS cache poisoning or DNS amplification attacks.

Case 2: 20240212190003.bailiwick.secshow[.]net

This FQDN type only appears every Monday at 19:00:03 UTC. The payload indicates a timestamp (e.g., on Feb. 12, 2024, at 19:00:03 UTC) that is the generation time for this FQDN.

Attackers spoof a source IP address and query this FQDN from a resolver IP address. Attackers can perform the following activities:

  • Test the query delays for this resolver
  • Check whether their domain is blocked and the query is forwarded to a sinkhole
  • Exploit the vulnerabilities of this resolver

Attackers achieve the first two objectives by analyzing logs from their authoritative nameserver. To exploit the vulnerabilities of the resolver, the response of this query contains an A record for another domain:

In the above code, afusdnfysbsf[.]com was a malicious domain that had been revoked. However, its record can still be cached by resolvers. Therefore, attackers might leverage some resolver’s cache vulnerabilities in older software versions (for example, CVE-2012-1033) to prevent domain name revocation.

Case 3: 1-103-170-192-121-103-170-192-9.h.secshow[.]net

The payload starts with a counter padding of 1 followed by two IP addresses of 103.170.192[.]121 and 103.170.192[.]9 that are the spoofed source IP address and the resolver's destination IP address.

This FQDN type is similar to Case 1. However, the A record of this FQDN is a random IP address that varies along with query attempts, with a long TTL of 86400. This feature could be exploited to perform the following activities:

  • DNS amplification distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks
  • DNS cache poisoning attacks
  • Resource exhaustion attacks

Case 4: 0-53ea2a3a-202401201-ans-dnssec.l-test.secdns[.]site

The payload contains a pre-padding of 0 followed by a hex-encoded IP address (53ea2a3a), a date (20240120), and post-padding (1). We observe that attackers use this type of FQDN to obtain the following information:

  • Max/min TTL
  • Timeout
  • Query speed information

These are useful for some DNS threats such as Phoenix Domain [PDF] and Ghost Domain Names.


The DNS tunneling domains used in these campaigns can be detected by Palo Alto Networks firewall products. However, we also suggest the following measures to reduce the attack surface of DNS resolvers.

  • Control the service range of resolvers to accept necessary queries only
  • Promptly update the resolver software version to prevent N-day vulnerabilities


DNS tunneling techniques can be leveraged by adversaries to perform various actions not normally associated with DNS tunneling. Despite the conventional impression that tunneling is used for C2 and VPN purposes, we also find that attackers can use DNS tunneling as a vehicle for victim activity tracking and network scanning.

Palo Alto Networks Next-Generation Firewall customers receive protections against malicious indicators (domain, IP address) mentioned in this article via Advanced URL Filtering and our DNS Security subscription services.

If you think you may have been compromised or have an urgent matter, get in touch with the Unit 42 Incident Response team or call:

  • North America Toll-Free: 866.486.4842 (866.4.UNIT42)
  • EMEA: +
  • APAC: +65.6983.8730
  • Japan: +81.50.1790.0200

Palo Alto Networks has shared these findings with our fellow Cyber Threat Alliance (CTA) members. CTA members use this intelligence to rapidly deploy protections to their customers and to systematically disrupt malicious cyber actors. Learn more about the Cyber Threat Alliance.

Indicators of Compromise

Domains used for DNS tunneling

  • 85hsyad6i2ngzp[.]com
  • 8egub9e7s6cz7n[.]com
  • 8jtuazcr548ajj[.]com
  • anrad9i7fb2twm[.]com
  • aucxjd8rrzh7xf[.]com
  • b5ba24k6xhxn7b[.]com
  • cgb488dixfxjw7[.]com
  • d6zeh4und3yjt9[.]com
  • epyujbhfhbs35j[.]com
  • hhmk9ixaw9p3ec[.]com
  • hjmpfsamfkj5m5[.]com
  • iszedim8xredu2[.]com
  • npknraafbisrs7[.]com
  • patycyfswg33nh[.]com
  • rhctiz9xijd4yc[.]com
  • sn9jxsrp23x63a[.]com
  • swh9cpz2xntuge[.]com
  • tp7djzjtcs6gm6[.]com
  • uxjxfg2ui8k5zk[.]com
  • wzbhk2ccghtshr[.]com
  • y43dkbzwar7cdt[.]com
  • ydxpwzhidexgny[.]com
  • z54zspih9h5588[.]com
  • 3yfr6hh9dd3[.]com
  • 4bs6hkaysxa[.]com
  • 66tye9kcnxi[.]com
  • 8kk68biiitj[.]com
  • 93dhmp7ipsp[.]com
  • api536yepwj[.]com
  • bb62sbtk3yi[.]com
  • cytceitft8g[.]com
  • dipgprjp8uu[.]com
  • ege6wf76eyp[.]com
  • f6kf5inmfmj[.]com
  • f6ywh2ud89u[.]com
  • h82c3stb3k5[.]com
  • hwa85y4icf5[.]com
  • ifjh5asi25f[.]com
  • m9y6dte7b9i[.]com
  • n98erejcf9t[.]com
  • rz53par3ux2[.]com
  • szd4hw4xdaj[.]com
  • wj9ii6rx7yd[.]com
  • wk7ckgiuc6i[.]com
  • secshow[.]net
  • secshow[.]online
  • secdns[.]site

IP addresses associated with this activity

  • 35.75.233[.]210
  • 202.112.47[.]45

Additional Resources

Updated May 13, 2024, at 10:15 a.m. PT to correct Table 2 and 3. 

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