Sunday, February 9, 2020

Detecting DNS Tunneling Using Subdomain Frequency Analysis

By Tony Lee

For those that may not be familiar, DNS tunneling is the process of embedding data inside DNS requests and responses. It is typically used by a threat actor as a last resort command and control (C2) channel due to the size limitations of DNS packets. One trade-off for the limited size and slow speed is that it is one of the stealthiest and most difficult C2 channels to detect--thus it is quite effective at  maintaining persistence even after other C2 is discovered and eliminated. Due to the prevalence of DNS and its generally trusted (not inspected) status in most networks, most organizations have little-to-no visibility, however this article will cover just one of the many methods of detecting this stealthy C2.  The first step is to collect the DNS logs and send them to a central log aggregation platform such as Splunk--which is what our example uses, but feel free to apply it to your platform of choosing.

Figure 1:  Visual explanation of DNS Tunneling

Query Length

After collecting the logs, we will next look for abnormally long DNS queries. Technically the longest allowable domain name per the RFC is 253 characters (including the dots)--thus we can encode enough data in each fully qualified domain name (FQDN) to constitute C2, but it does require creating longer DNS queries. The example search below assumes that we are storing the DNS logs in an index called dns and log format of Microsoft Windows AD DNS (hence the sourcetype), but this will also work for BIND and other DNS data.  Our example checks for a DNS query length greater than 50 characters--but it can be tuned to whatever works best in your environment. Keep in mind that if the number is too low, you will see too many false positives.  If it is too high, you may miss some tunneling or other strangeness that you want to investigate.  We recommend that you start at 50 and adjust as needed.

index=dns sourcetype="MSAD:NT6:DNS" NOT (query="_ldap*" OR query="*" OR query="*") | where len(query)>50

Note:  Be sure to check that your DNS query is actually contained in the "query" field

Subdomain Frequency Analysis

If the above search worked and returned some results, we have met the prerequisites.  Taking the search above a step further we are going to parse out the domain portion and use statistical analysis to give us the following columns:
  • The domain controlled by the attacker
  • Potential number of victims querying this domain
  • Number of subdomains
  • Number of times the attacker-controlled domain was queried
  • List of potential victims
  • List of the subdomains that were queried

index=dns sourcetype="MSAD:NT6:DNS" NOT (query="_ldap*" OR query="*" OR query="*") | where len(query)>50 | rex field=query ".*?\.(?<domain>.*)\.$" | stats dc(src_ip) AS NumSourceIPs, dc(query) AS NumSubDomains, count(query) AS DomainQueryCount, values(src_ip) AS SourceIPs, values(query) AS Subdomains by domain | sort - NumSubDomains | where NumSubDomains>1

Figure 1:  Fields provided by the search string above

Now look for anything that stands out as being suspicious.  Keep in mind some of this may be legitimate traffic, but you may also find some known bad domains as you research the results.

Defense Strategy

As mentioned in the introduction, DNS tunneling can be tough to defend against.  However, follow these tips and it will increase the difficulty of attacker success.
  • Keep a simple DNS infrastructure.  The more complicated and chained, the more difficult it is to detect this issue
  • Do not allow hosts to go directly to the Internet for DNS (block all but the DNS servers at the firewall and monitor for any deviation)
  • Send all DNS logs (Microsoft AD, BIND, etc.) to a centralized logging platform
  • Run searches (such as the one provided in this article) to continuously monitor and alert on anomalies
  • Use threat intelligence to augment your DNS tunneling searches to alert against known malicious domains


There are many ways of detecting potential DNS tunneling and this is just one of them. Even if you don't catch a threat actor in your network, you may end up discovering something else strange.  Content distribution networks (CDNs), threat actors, marketing software, spyware, and more may turn up in your search results.  Maybe some or all of those are a concern to your team.  You won't know until you take a look though.  Happy Searching!


Good explanation of DNS tunneling found at: -- Kudos for their graphic as well--it is one of the clearest we found on-line.  Nice work.


  1. This is a terrific synopsis of the dangers of DNS tunneling.
    Nice work Tony - as always.