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Global Investigative Journalism Conference

Thursday, October 13, 2005

A Concise DNS Primer for Journalists 

It occurs to me that most journalists probably don't realize the domain names they type into their browsers all day long may actually be sources of information in and of themselves.

The DNS is a map and a rosetta stone for the Internet. It translates from human-readable domain names we use (e.g. www.gc.ca - the main Government of Canada web site) to numeric Internet Protocol (IP) addresses (192.103.238.30 in this case) that the machines understand.

When we type a name into the browser address bar the networking software of our PC (the client in techie talk) asks the DNS for the IP address and relays the request from the browser for their landing page to the appropriate server. When the web server in our example receives the request it sends a bunch of data packets back to our address. The network client software knows the browser application is waiting for this data and passes it on and the browser renders the HTML into the web page.

My reason for explaining all this? What if you want to use something from a web site in a story but you want to be sure of the source's identity and/or affiliation? If you understand the basics of the DNS system and know where to look you can find out who owns which web site.

A sharp observer will have noted that both domain names and IP addresses are segmented by periods (www-dot-gc-dot-ca). The segments are levels in the DNS. In our example the .ca represents the country-specific Canada domain (as opposed to say a dot-com or COMmercial domain). Each country has a domain name registrar for the names in its geographic region. Ours is the aptly-named Canadian Internet Registration Authority or CIRA.

We can go to the CIRA web site (http://www.cira.ca) and use the web interface to the also aptly-named whois program. Whois (Who is?) is a command-line utility on unix/linux machines that tells us who is the owner of a domain by accessing the rest of the info in a DNS database entry.

So by asking whois to tell us about the owner of gc.ca we get the following:

=====Begin Whois Response=====
Registrant Name Government of Canada/Gouvernement du Canada
Registrar Internic.ca Corp.
Renewal Date 2006/04/19
Date approved 2000/10/18
Last changed 2005/07/13
Description
Registrar Number 29
Registrant Number 23868
Domain Number 23868
DNS1
relay.srv.gc.ca 192.197.83.1
DNS2
rusty.srv.gc.ca 198.103.97.1
DNS3
jerome.srv.gc.ca 64.26.174.230
DNS4
ns1.drenet.dnd.ca
DNS5

DNS6

=====End Whois Response=====

Those with sharp eyes amd minds will have noticed CIRA does not tell us the IP address. This is a recent change in policy that reflects the increasing insecurity of the 'net. It is not useful for our purposes anyway.

I would love to use a real-world example to illustrate how to use the DNS while researching a story but I don't have one and I'm running out of time. The following semi-real-world one will have to do.

There was a group here in Toronto fighting the City's new anti-pesticide bylaws. They called themselves something green sounding like Citizens for the Environment or some such when they were actually a coalition of lawn care companies that wanted to go on doing business as usual. A quick check of their domain name registration may have revealed the truth behind the name.

N.B. There may be some connecting of the dots necessary. For instance a domain registration may lead back to the PR firm representing the organisation in question. There may even be more than one dot.

A domain is owned by Web Site 'r Us. You go to their web site and they boast that Flack & Ass. is one of their big clients. Being a savvy, well-informed freelance scribe you know that Flack & Ass. represents an organisation in the middle of the story you are doing. Not exactly a smoking gun but it can solidify suspicions about questionable source material and the associated spin.

What if you want to find out about domains other than the .ca domain in the example like .aero, .arpa, .biz, .com, .coop, .edu, .info, .int, .museum, .net, and .org?

Go to http://www.internic.com/whois.html

Of course the swifter ones among you will have already figured out that googling 'whois' will return any number of interesting links.

(Don't you hate it when people use words like googling?)


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