Who is protecting the VPNs?

In recent days news has spread that China is cracking down on VPN use (Guardian, Global Voices). Chinese internet users, particularly those in universities, are finding it increasingly difficult to make use of VPNs to circumvent online censorship and access blocked websites. This seems to be a continuation of the increased censorship witnessed this year, including temporary blocks of GMail and LinkedIn.

While important, this development leaves an obvious question unanswered: Why do the authorities not block access to the main websites of the major VPN providers? Each serious provider offers access to a number of servers around the world and blocking actual usage of these is somewhat complicated. The main websites, however, could be blocked in an instant. After all, the Great Firewall has no problem constantly blocking other websites such as Youtube and Facebook.

There are three apparent possibilites. The first is incompetence. The authorities might simply not be aware of the VPN providers that are not blocked. This seems unlikely for two reasons. First, all it takes is a Google search of, say, "VPN China". Blocking the top 10 results would go a long way to making VPN access in China more difficult. Second, some providers, such as StrongVPN, are in fact temporarily blocked from time to time.

The second possibility is that blocking VPN use is not a priority. Paid VPNs may mostly be used by foreigners, and the censorship is more consistent when it comes to free solutions such as Tor and Witopia.

The third possibility is that some faction inside the regime is vetoing ideas of blocking VPN use altogether. This may be the most likely reason that major VPN provider websites remain unblocked, given how easy it would be to block them.

What do you think? We welcome your opinions.

Comments

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Fri, Mar 27, 2015

CNNIC censored Google and Mozilla’s posts about CNNIC CA

This week, Google found unauthorized digital certificates for several Google domains, the root CA of which is CNNIC. Google and Mozilla both publicly disclosed this security incident and published blog posts(Google, Mozilla). However, Chinese translations of Google’s and Mozilla's blog posts were censored on the Chinese Internet.

  • William Long is a prominent Chinese blogger on IT and tech. He translated Google’s security post without adding any personal opinions. The Chinese blogpost ranked #1 when searching CNNIC MITM in Chinese on Google and Baidu. He tweeted that he received a phone call from propaganda department demanding the post to be removed immediately. The post http://www.williamlong.info/archives/4183.html was deleted. Google cache is still available.

Wed, Mar 25, 2015

Evidence shows CNNIC and CAC behind MITM attacks

Since 2013, we have repeatedly called on major software vendors to revoke CNNIC-issued certificates. Most notably, we raised this issue when we reported on the Cyberspace Administration of China’s (CAC) man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks on Google, Microsoft’s Outlook, Apple, Yahoo and Github. Mainstream media have reported about these security vulnerabilities before and on March 24, Ars Technica reported on Google’s announcement that they have definitive evidence that CNNIC (China Internet Network Information Center) was behind a new MITM attack on Google.

From our October, 2014 blog post:

Thu, Mar 19, 2015

We are under attack

We are under attack and we need help.

Likely in response to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), we’ve experienced our first ever distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. This tactic is used to bring down web pages by flooding them with lots of requests - at the time of writing they number 2.6 billion requests per hour. Websites are not equipped to handle that kind of volume so they usually “break” and go offline.

This kind of attack is aggressive and is an exhibition of censorship by brute force. Attackers resort to tactics like this when they are left with no other options.

We are not equipped to handle a DDoS attack of this magnitude and we need help. Some background:

  • The attack started on March 17 and we are receiving up to 2.6 billion requests per hour which is about 2500 times more than normal levels.

Thu, Mar 12, 2015

Collateral Freedom and the not-so-Great Firewall

Recognizing that the authorities have been hesitant to crackdown on our method of circumvention, we have accelerated our expansion of the development of collateral freedom, in three key areas.

Mon, Jan 26, 2015

An Open Letter to Lu Wei and the Cyberspace Administration of China

January 26, 2015

Beijing, China

 

Mr. Lu Wei

Director of the Cyberspace Administration of the People’s Republic of China 中央网络安全和信息化领导小组办公室主任

Director of the State Internet Information Office 国家互联网信息办公室主任

Deputy Director of the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party 中共中央宣传部副部长

Cyberspace Administration of China,

Floor 1, Building 1,

Software Park, Chinese Academy of Sciences,

4 South 4th Street, Zhongguancun,

Beijing, China, 100190

 

Dear Mr. Lu,

On January 22, 2015, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which is under your direct control, wrote a response to a story we published about an MITM attack on Microsoft. In the post, your colleague, Jiang Jun, labelled our accusations as "groundless" and  "unsupported speculation, a pure slanderous act by overseas anti-China forces".

We at GreatFire.org take great offense to these comments and we will refute them in this letter.

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Comments

Here are some reasons:
*All sites that would mention them as a way to get out of the firewall are blocked. So are most of the Google searches.
*They are trying to gain support from the West, and it is not a problem.
*People might be lazy to download it, instead use an online proxy so it is not a threat.
*They may have made a deal with VPN companies to ban all websites that China blocks.
I am baffled too.

They are blocked, they probably read this.

Been using VPNinja for a while now, it's pretty solid and for a decent price. Friends using strongVPN are forever complaining that it's blocked, but I never encounter problems like that

Another possibility is that the major VPNs have been penetrated by Chinese Intelligence who now have access to subscriber names and credit card details, thus linking subscriber details to all their traffic, sniffed and decrypted via Huawei routers installed in the major local Chinese Servers before arriving at the foreign VPN servers. A glorious harvest indeed, email passwords, skype messages, bank account information, postings, commercial secrets, personal profiels all matched to a name, credit card and finally a residence permit number.. Paranoia bites!

I am using Astrill paid VPN. As of last night Open VPN was completely blocked on all servers. I contacted their support and they said that China is cracking down during the leadership convention, and that it will be removed after.

I would bet there is an arrangement between Astrill and the government, since they can give this kind of answer. Furthermore my friends have reported that many of the other VPN solutions have also stopped working. Could it be the ones that refused?

I have also observed that my Vonage VOIP phone has been blocked since last night, and skype calls are severely bandwidth limited. Wonder when it will lighten up.

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