What Is the WHOIS Database? Inner Workings and Applications

What Is The Whois Database

WHOIS is a publicly accessible internet record listing or database that provides information on who owns a domain, their contact details, and other data relating to a specific domain name or IP address.

Besides being able to reach a website owner, domain information can be leveraged to identify suspicious websites or investigate fraudulent activities. Therefore, the WHOIS database is a rather useful tool as it helps democratize the internet by letting anybody uncover who is behind a domain name, ensuring transparency and accountability.

Understanding WHOIS

Whenever you register a domain, you must submit information about yourself, such as your name, address, and contact details. This is done because ICANN (the organization regulating the WHOIS database) requires it to make sure everything is by the book.

Screenshot of WHOIS homepage
WHOIS provides ownership details like registrant name, contact info, registration, and expiration dates of a website.

The provided information will be added automatically and available to all through any WHOIS lookup tool. Every detail must be accurate. Otherwise, you run the risk of having your domain suspended or canceled.

Note: You’re bound to come across similar terms, so make sure you understand the difference between registry (the company that manages a list containing a set of domain names), registrant (legal owner of the domain), and registrar (middleman that registrant uses to make their registration).

Evolution of WHOIS

It was 1982 when the WHOIS database first emerged in the form of a protocol for a directory service for ARPANET (the precursor to the internet we know and love). At the time, it was a simple directory listing contact information for users transmitting data on the network. However, it quickly became a standard for looking up people, domains, and network resources.

Fast forward a decade or so to the 90s when WWW burst into the scene. The internet grew rapidly, which meant there were more stakeholders at play, from registrants and governmental agencies to businesses and individuals. So, the WHOIS opened up for everyone, with ICANN taking the reins in 1998.

Timeline of WHOIS
WHOIS has a rich history as being a resource for obtaining information about domain ownership.

Over the years, the organization modified the WHOIS requirements through numerous agreements with registrars and registries. These agreements outline the basic framework for the way WHOIS is used today to sift through 660+ million active domain names.

Key Components of WHOIS Records

When it comes to the kind of information stored, a WHOIS record may vary between different registrars. Still, it commonly contains contact information associated with the person, group, or company that registers a particular domain name.

This includes the name and contact information of the registrant, the name and contact information of the registrar, registration dates, and nameservers. Some records may also provide additional facts like the registration location, date of the latest update, and expiration date.

You should know: You can hide some details as registrars usually offer private registration services or proxy services to ensure domain privacy.

How WHOIS Works

When someone performs a check on a domain name, the WHOIS protocol queries the database to fetch the data associated with that domain name. Interestingly, the WHOIS database is not centralized but rather distributed across multiple registrars and registries.

WHOIS Protocol

At the center of the process, the WHOIS protocol is a TCP-based protocol (a common protocol used to deliver data in digital networks) tasked to provide domain name registration details.

Since it’s a query-response protocol, it submits your request (a domain name or an IP address) to the WHOIS server. Acting as the information custodian, the server searches the WHOIS database and delivers a response featuring relevant particulars about the queried resource.

Just so there’s no confusion, WHOIS is both a protocol and a lookup service that helps you, me, and others discover information about the entities that own and manage domain names and IP addresses.

Accessing WHOIS Data

There is no shortage of ways for both casual and more technical users to get a hold of publicly available contact and other domain-related information. Here’s a rundown of your options:

  • Online WHOIS lookup tools: The simplest and most user-friendly means to access the WHOIS database, as all you need to do is enter the domain name or IP address in the text box. The tool will then retrieve and display the most recent WHOIS information for the query you’re interested in. You have a number of lookup tools at your disposal, supplied by domain name registrars and hosting providers.
  • Command line WHOIS queries: Though most users likely won’t bother with it, using a command line interface (CLI) can be beneficial for the more tech-savvy among us, particularly network administrators and security professionals who want to check network connectivity or troubleshoot an issue. The idea is to enter commands into a terminal window. If this sounds overly technical to you, the good news here is that the majority of Unix-based systems come with a built-in WHOIS command. It looks like this: whois [domain name].
  • WHOIS APIs: Moving further into the power user territory, the WHOIS API method allows the automation of WHOIS lookups within a given application or workflow. Because the integration is done directly into the code, you get more options to filter and tailor the retrieved data to your needs, such as querying multiple WHOIS servers simultaneously, searching for specific keywords, storing the results in a database, or exporting them, and so on.

Due to data accuracy, the privacy setting of a domain registrar, the top-level domain (TLD) policies, and any privacy protection services that the registrant may have used, there is a good chance that the available information will be limited.

How to Use WHOIS Lookup Tools

Looking up domain information is fairly straightforward. Better yet, it’s pretty much the same for every tool so feel free to use one that is most to your liking.

  1. Go to the site of your choosing. I’ll be using ICANN’s lookup tool for this quick demonstration.
  2. Type in the domain name or IP address you want to look up and click “Lookup.” I’ll use Google.com as an example.
Screenshot of ICANN Lookup tool
Since ICANN owns WHOIS, its lookup tool pulls from WHOIS data.
  1. Once the page reloads, scroll down to see all available information about the domain and its registrant.
Screenshot of ICANN Lookup tool
Learn ownership details, registration and expiration dates, registrar information, and name server details.

That is all there is to it — easy-peasy.

Privacy and Access Controls

With great WHOIS power comes a great responsibility to use it ethically and legally. Use it solely for legitimate purposes, adhere to the terms of service, and be transparent if you’re integrating WHOIS data into your site, app, or workflow.

There is more than meets the eye in regard to WHOIS. For starters, some information (sensitive stuff) about the registrant is occasionally redacted, such as a registrant’s name, country of residence, phone number, and other private information.

GDPR infographic
The GDPR has seven principles, but its focus centers around compliance and cybersecurity. (Source: Bits N’ Bytes)

You can thank GDPR and increasing privacy regulations for that. In a nutshell, the EU legislation radically changed the public’s access to generic top-level domain (gTLD) registration data. Shortly after the regulation was implemented in 2018, ICANN made a temporary decision to hide certain information until it worked out how best to comply with GDPR when it comes to the WHOIS database.

The Temporary Specification for gTLD Registration Data outlines a tiered-access system. While most personal information will be unavailable, certain approved and ICANN-accredited third parties who have a legitimate interest might be granted less restricted tiers of access to WHOIS data.

That being said, access to information doesn’t solely rely on ICANN. You see, the organization has control only over the gTLDs. There are some country-code top-level domains (ccTLD) that display information about the owner, largely when it’s a company of some kind. In such cases, a local registry decides what data is visible and what isn’t.

Uses and Applications

Growing from its humble beginnings as a resource directory to an important tool used to support business opportunities and combat malicious activities, WHOIS is now used for multiple purposes that can be broadly grouped into three categories:

Domain Ownership Verification

Whether you’re an individual user or represent an organization, arguably the biggest perk of WHOIS is that it allows you to verify domain ownership.

Domain ownership verification illustration

In many ways, it’s a vital aspect of internet security (more on that in a bit), but it also has other applications.

For instance, you can use WHOIS to establish the legitimacy (real-world identity and location) of an online merchant you’re not quite sure about. In a scenario where there is a copyright violation, you can contact the registrars and sort out the issue. You may be starting a business and want to check for similar domain names to the one you have in mind.

It may also be possible to leverage the domain name registration information to contact the owner and inquire about the purchase of the registered name. You never know!

Investigative Purposes

For decades, the WHOIS database has supplied key facts in identifying online perpetrators, thus enabling effective protection against harmful campaigns. Essentially, whenever you need to investigate the owner of a website or IP address, WHOIS is the starting point.

Investigative purposes illustration

Let’s say there is some fraudster distributing malware. Law enforcement agencies can use WHOIS lookup to identify and track down the domain owner. Hey, if it’s good for the FBI, it should be good for everyone.

Besides supporting law enforcement officials in cases and legal proceedings, WHOIS has been very helpful in cybersecurity investigations concerning numerous kinds of online abuses: spamming, phishing, impersonation, and other ill-natured activities originating from a specific domain or IP address.

It has also provided support in instances of intellectual property infringement, enabling right holders to uphold intellectual property rights by tracking down domain owners.

Domain Management

Although there are domain management control panels suited for the job, WHOIS can provide a centralized place to view all the information associated with one or multiple domains.

Domain management illustration

This provides a quick and easy way to check the status of multiple domains within a portfolio.

Since all the details are in one place, it’s an unexacting way to stay ahead of expiration dates and receive timely reminders for renewal, avoiding potential loss. For the same reason, you can use WHOIS to see to it that your contact information is correct.

Additionally, WHOIS helps make sure everything is kosher when transferring a domain from one registrar to another. In some instances, it may aid in stopping a hacking attempt or domain theft by checking its records for unauthorized changes. And let’s not forget that email addresses are rather handy resources for any kind of domain disputes.

Limitations and Challenges

If it wasn’t clear by now, WHOIS doesn’t lack restrictions significantly impacting its overall effectiveness and validity.

Incomplete or Outdated Information

At the moment, the WHOIS database has about 13.7 billion records, give or take a million. Are you willing to bet everything is up-to-date and accurate? Me neither.

Incomplete or outdated info illustration

Sure, ICANN insists on keeping everything tidy, but the reality is that things change over time, and information becomes obsolete.

Some people simply forget to update, and registrars aren’t really that stringent in enforcing data accuracy. Plus, WHOIS databases routinely fail to reflect real-time updates to domain registration information (which can take up to a day), leading to incorrect data being presented.

It doesn’t help that some domain registrars offer private registration and protection services known as proxy services or WHOIS privacy services. Here, the registrar’s contact information or that of an anonymous proxy identity is shown instead of the registrant’s. So, if someone would look up your domain name, they wouldn’t see it.

Privacy Concerns

The biggest gripe with WHOIS is that it’s stuck between a rock and a hard place, so to speak. Handling personal information yet being publicly accessible is not a combination anyone wants, which is why privacy concerns are raised left and right and why domain owners tend to opt for privacy protection services.

privacy concerns illustration

Yet, these don’t guarantee full anonymity or come without drawbacks. Registrars may still be bound by law to release private information if a governmental agency asks for it nicely. You also don’t want to be unavailable if someone wants to contact you and, say, buy a domain from you.

Then, you have legal and policy constraints. In different regions (GDPR comes to mind once again), TLD policies can impose limitations on the type and extent of information available in WHOIS records. For example, TLDs like .me or .gov inherently display less information. All of this results in inconsistencies in the data and makes it unreliable at times.

So, WHOIS is an equation that is yet to be solved: balancing the need for transparency and accountability on one side with the privacy rights of domain registrants on the other. This leads us to our next topic of discussion.

Abuse and Misuse

This is the unfortunate other side of the coin that is WHOIS. As much as these publicly available records have been used to track malicious activities, they have also propagated them to a certain extent.

Abuse and misuse illustration

Automated bots can be employed to scrape and gather massive volumes of WHOIS data. Cybercriminals can then use it for targeted social engineering attacks, phishing campaigns, or identity theft. It doesn’t take much creativity, especially with the help of AI, to generate personalized messages based on details found in WHOIS records that appear believable to targets.

What makes matters worse is the fact that it’s not just publicly available information that is used — it’s also the anonymity part. Malicious actors are taking advantage of being anonymous through privacy protection services to attack organizations via anonymously registered domains. On a simpler level, they may deliberately supply false information to evade detection, making it difficult to originate illicit activities.

As you can imagine, all of this can not only impede the effectiveness of security investigations and the protection of rights but also increase the risk of cyberattacks and abuse of personal information.

WHOIS Alternatives and Innovations

Despite being a very simple protocol at its core, the absence of a well-structured specification makes WHOIS one of the most complex and unpredictable protocols to work with. This is likely why there are so many customized versions of it and no unique, standardized interface. So, it comes as no surprise that there are new kids on the block aiming to take over.

RDAP (Registration Data Access Protocol)

An improved version of WHOIS, by all means, RDAP was designed to eventually replace WHOIS (it’s unclear when exactly). ICANN already uses it for its lookup tool as it’s a modernized protocol offering better security, structure, scalability, and support for internationalization. In other words, it will standardize data access and query response formats.

Along with technical improvements I’m not going to bore you with, let’s just say that RDAP’s big thing is allowing differentiated access rights. This means registrars are free to regulate who can see what, unlike WHOIS which is open to everyone.

The results displayed come directly from registry operators and/or registrars. In the event the queried information is not available, the so-called “bootstrap” functionality will kick in. The query will be redirected to the WHOIS service of the corresponding gTLD registry operator to provide available particulars.

Domain Privacy Services

A domain privacy service allows you to hide personal information from public view. This will reduce your sensitivity to spam messages and identity theft. Your details will be ‘redacted for privacy’ in the registrant fields and/or replaced with a dummy or a forwarding address.

Pro tip: Some domain name registrars like GoDaddy offer the service for free via a third party, while others charge a fee to be your shield. The domain still belongs to you, but now only one entity knows who is truly behind it. As a means to be in control of what information is publicly available, domain privacy services check all the boxes.

Blockchain-Based Domain Systems

As an emerging alternative to the traditional WHOIS, blockchain-based domain systems take a decentralized approach to distributing ownership and control by spreading them across a network of computers. In other words, no single entity controls the blockchain domains.

Due to the inherently secure nature of blockchain, it’s possible to completely mask your domain ownership from prying eyes, with information accessible only with a decryption key. The record becomes virtually impossible to alter or delete, with the added bonus of storing additional data associated with the domain.

All of this sounds fancy, but adoption has been slow due to more technical know-how required both from an integration and management point of view. Being a new technology, the legal and regulatory landscape is still developing, presenting a challenge to enforcing owner rights.

Balancing Privacy and Transparency With WHOIS

As a concept, privacy is something people like to believe in. Yet, it’s a bit of an oxymoron, emblematic of all WHOIS represents. Finding the sweet spot between safeguarding registrants’ privacy and holding them accountable for their actions will continue to be a struggle.

Whatever your sentiment is, there is no denying that WHOIS is a fundamental part of the internet. Its broad applications matter greatly to the security and stability of our everyday lives, even if cybercrime keeps expanding in new and alarming ways.

How all the challenges will be tackled remains to be seen. Moving forward, the role each of us can play is to leverage WHOIS responsibly and stay informed about evolving privacy regulations and technological advancements. These will be key drivers shaping domain information management, and by proxy, how safe we are in the digital world.