Apple and Microsoft trust Chinese government to protect your communication

Microsoft, Apple and Mozilla among others, trust CNNIC (China Internet Network Information Center) to protect your communications on their platforms by default, regardless of whether or not you are in China. CNNIC has implemented (and tried to mask) internet censorship, produced malware and has very bad security practices. Tech-savvy users in China have been protesting the inclusion of CNNIC as a trusted certificate authority for years. In January 2013, after Github was attacked in China, we publicly called for the the revocation of the trust certificate for CNNIC. In light of the recent spate of man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks in China, and in an effort to protect user privacy not just in China but everywhere, we again call for revocation of CNNIC Certificate Authority.

Are you vulnerable to CNNIC-issued certificates?

You can test this by visiting the CNNIC site:  

If you see a padlock in your browser’s address bar or receive no warning messages, it means that your computer trusts CNNIC as a certificate authority and you might be vulnerable to a MITM attack from CNNIC.


Usernames, passwords, emails, photos, contacts and even financial information can be compromised.

Why is CNNIC not trustworthy?

CNNIC is either complicit in the recent MITM attacks or has intentionally allowed these attacks to happen. We have been witness to the Chinese authorities using MITM attacks against Apple’s iCloud, Google, Microsoft’s Outlook and Yahoo in this month alone.

CNNIC is responsible for the “operation, administration and service organization of national network fundamental resources”. We have evidence that the recent attacks originated from the Chinese internet backbone. Attacks against Yahoo and Google have been implemented on the internet backbone for weeks.

CNNIC is led by the Director of the Bureau of Telecommunications Regulation which is a part of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). MIIT famously requires all websites hosted in China, from B2B behemoths to blogs, to obtain a license. MIIT regularly scans all websites in China and shuts down any website without a license.

CNNIC-produced malware, titled “Chinese-Language-Surfing Official Edition”, was ranked among the top five instances of malware in 2005 by the Beijing Network Industry Association because of its forced installation and the inability to entirely remove the malware. Microsoft also labeled it as a threat:

BrowserModifier:Win32/CNNIC often installed.. with or without user consent. [It] contains a kernel driver that protects its files and registry settings from being modified or deleted.

via Microsoft Malware Protection Center

Panda Security also noted that CNNIC exploited vulnerabilities and used other malware to distribute the software. CNNIC does this by prompting users to “open files, view malicious web pages, read emails, etc.”. The malware then captures all information entered or saved by the user, which leads to significant privacy issues.

CNNIC and censorship

Public DNS servers operated by CNNIC implement censorship to block users from accessing Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and many other websites. If users in China try to access blocked sites, false DNS responses will be returned. However, if users are located outside of China, DNS responses will be valid.

The screenshot below illustrates that when a China-based user looks up on the DNS server (This DNS server is operated by CNNIC), they will not be able to connect to the site and will receive a false response, namely, which is not owned by Twitter. The user is hence blocked from accessing Twitter.


CNNIC not only implements censorship but also masks its level of involvement. On January 21, 2014, GFW accidentally blocked the entire Internet in China by DNS poisoning top level domains such as .com. We have conclusive evidence that GFW was the cause of the blackout (see our blog post for details). New York Times ran an article entitled “Big Web Crash in China: Experts Suspect Great Firewall” on its front page. CNNIC acknowledged the internet blackout but did not identify the cause of the blackout. CNNIC’s responsibilities in China include Chinese domain name security. As an agency directly responsible for the security of DNS, CNNIC’s failure to investigate such a large-scale and easily identifiable attack can be construed as a coverup for GFW.  

One need not look any further than their homepage to see that CNNIC has very bad security practices. The homepage has mixed insecure content. All content indexed on the CNNIC website is HTTP by default (unencrypted), including forms that require user submissions.

Many Chinese users protested when CNNIC was first trusted by Mozilla’s Firefox in 2009. You can read the heated debate on the Mozilla forum. Now that MITM attacks are becoming the new normal on the Chinese Internet, we hope that Mozilla, Microsoft and Apple can revoke trust for CNNIC to protect not just Chinese user data but user data worldwide.

Who trusts CNNIC and what are the consequences of trusting them?

Certificates issued by CNNIC are, by default, trusted by open source products including Mozilla’s Firefox and the Linux distribution Ubuntu, Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s iOS and OSX. This applies to almost every version of Firefox, Ubuntu and Windows and most models of Apple’s iPhone, even if you have never been to China or you bought your software and hardware outside of China.


CNNIC can issue certificates to intercept encrypted connections without your knowledge.  

As evidenced by this screenshot, CNNIC can “ensure the identify of a remote computer”. So if GFW or state-sponsored hackers use CNNIC for an MITM attack, your computer or iPhone will trust a snooped connection hijacked by hackers. Consequently, all your communications can be recorded, analyzed and manipulated by GFW or hackers. Usernames, passwords, text messages, emails, photos, contacts and even financial information can be acquired by the Chinese authorities. Apple has just released Apple Pay - a compromised connection will not only cost you your privacy, it may cost your money as well. iPhones are especially vulnerable to attack because there is no way for iPhone users to view details of a trusted certificate used in the connection. An attack from CNNIC is impossible to identify on iOS. You do not need be in China to be vulnerable to these attacks.

To be fair, man-in-the-middle attacks using CNNIC likely won’t happen on a large scale. Once discovered, CNNIC’s trust certificate would likely be revoked by Mozilla, Microsoft and Apple.

However, highly targeted attacks can go unnoticed. In fact, the large scale attack against Microsoft's Outlook last week “almost went unnoticed”. It took two days for mainstream media to report on the recent iCloud hack.

Why do Mozilla, Microsoft and Apple take such huge risks with their user data, especially considering that Outlook and iCloud have been recently attacked? By trusting CNNIC, these companies continue to put user data in danger not just in China, but everywhere.

What should you do?

First, you can ask Mozilla, Microsoft and Apple to revoke the CNNIC certificate. Tell them that you do not trust CNNIC and ask them to remove it from the system. If you are involved in an open source community such as Mozilla or Linux, ask the community to distrust the certificate and point them to this story. Please also share this article widely and alert users and software vendors to this privacy risk.

Revocation of the CNNIC certificate will take time and the Chinese government will likely exert pressure on companies to keep trusting CNNIC. You can take action yourself and distrust CNNIC by using a free and open source tool to revoke dubious certificate authority in China. This tool was made by Chinese to distrust CNNIC and various certificates used in the MITM attacks against iCloud, Outlook, Yahoo and Google. We recommended that you use the extended version on the Github. 

Once you used the tool, you should see a red warning bar when accessing This means that your device no longer trusts CNNIC and hence the Chinese authorities can no longer tamper with your connection.


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Thu, Aug 10, 2023

1.4 million people used FreeBrowser to circumvent the Great Firewall of Turkmenistan

Since 2021, the authorities in Turkmenistan have taken exceptional measures to crack down on the use of circumvention tools. Citizens have been forced to swear on the Koran that they will not use a VPN. Circumvention tool websites have been systematically blocked. Arbitrary searches of mobile devices have also taken place and have even targeted school children and teachers.

The government has also blocked servers hosting VPNs which led to “near complete” internet shutdowns on several occasions in 2022. Current reports indicate that 66 hosting providers, 19 social networks and messaging platforms, and 10 leading content delivery networks (CDNs), are blocked in the country. The government presumably is unconcerned about the negative economic impact that such shutdowns can cause.

Fri, Mar 18, 2022

Well-intentioned decisions have just made it easier for Putin to control the Russian Internet

This article is in large part inspired by a recent article from Meduza (in Russian).

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russian users have had problems accessing government websites and online banking clients. Browsers began to mark these sites as unsafe and drop the connection. The reason is the revocation of digital security certificates by foreign certificate authorities (either as a direct consequence of sanctions or as an independent, good will move); without them, browsers do not trust sites and “protect” their users from them.

However, these actions, caused - or at least triggered by - a desire to punish Russia for their gruesome actions in Ukraine, will have long-lasting consequences for Russian netizens.

Digital certificates are needed to confirm that the site the user wants to visit is not fraudulent. The certificates contain encryption keys to establish a secure connection between the site and the user. It is very easy to understand whether a page on the Internet is protected by a certificate. One need just look at the address bar of the browser. If the address begins with the https:// prefix, and there is a lock symbol next to the address, the page is protected. By clicking on this lock, you can see the status of the connection, the name of the Certification Authority (CA) that issued the certificate, and its validity period.

There are several dozen commercial and non-commercial organizations in the world that have digital root certificates, but 3/4 of all certificates are issued by only five of the largest companies. Four of them are registered in the USA and one is registered in Belgium.

Mon, Aug 03, 2020

Announcing the Release of GreatFire AppMaker

GreatFire (, a China-focused censorship monitoring organization, is proud to announce that we have developed and released a new anti-censorship tool that will enable any blocked media outlet, blogger, human rights group, or civil society organization to evade censors and get their content onto the phones of millions of readers and supporters in China and other countries that censor the Internet.

GreatFire has built an Android mobile app creator, called “GreatFire AppMaker”, that can be used by organizations to unblock their content for users in China and other countries. Organizations can visit a website ( which will compile an app that is branded with the organization’s own logo and will feature their own, formerly blocked content. The app will also contain a special, censorship-circumventing web browser so that users can access the uncensored World Wide Web. The apps will use multiple strategies, including machine learning, to evade advanced censorship tactics employed by the Chinese authorities.  This project will work equally well in other countries that have China-like censorship restrictions. For both organizations and end users, the apps will be free, fast, and extremely easy to use.

This project was inspired by China-based GreatFire’s first-hand experience with our own FreeBrowser app ( and desire to help small NGOs who may not have the in-house expertise to circumvent Chinese censorship. GreatFire’s anti-censorship tools have worked in China when others do not. FreeBrowser directs Chinese internet users to normally censored stories from the app’s start page (

Fri, Jul 24, 2020

Apple, anticompetition, and censorship

On July 20, 2020, GreatFire wrote to all 13 members of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, requesting a thorough examination into Apple’s practice of censorship of its App Store, and an investigation into how the company collaborates with the Chinese authorities to maintain its unique position as one of the few foreign tech companies operating profitably in the Chinese digital market.  

This letter was sent a week before Apple CEO TIm Cook will be called for questioning in front of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. The CEOs of Amazon, Google and Facebook will also be questioned on July 27, as part of the Committee’s ongoing investigation into competition in the digital marketplace.

This hearing offers an opportunity to detail to the Subcommittee how Apple uses its closed operating ecosystem to not only abuse its market position but also to deprive certain users, most notably those in China, of their right to download and use apps related to privacy, secure communication, and censorship circumvention.

We hope that U.S. House representatives agree with our view that Apple should not be allowed to do elsewhere what would be considered as unacceptable in the U.S. Chinese citizens are not second class citizens. Private companies such as Apple compromise themselves and their self-proclaimed values of freedom and privacy when they collaborate with the Chinese government and its censors.

Mon, Jun 10, 2019

Apple Censoring Tibetan Information in China

Apple has a long history of censorship when it comes to information about Tibet. In 2009, it was revealed that several apps related to the Dalai Lama were not available in the China App Store. The developers of these apps were not notified that their apps were removed. When confronted with these instances of censorship, an Apple spokesperson simply said that the company “continues to comply with local laws”.

In December, 2017, at a conference in China, when asked about working with the Chinese authorities to censor the Apple App Store, Tim Cook proclaimed:

"Your choice is: do you participate, or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be. And my own view very strongly is you show up and you participate, you get in the arena because nothing ever changes from the sideline."

In the ten years since Apple was first criticized for working with the Chinese authorities to silence already marginalized voices, what has changed? Apple continues to strictly follow the censorship orders of the Chinese authorities. When does Tim Cook expect that his company will help to bring about positive change in China?

Based on data generated from, Apple has now censored 29 popular Tibetan mobile applications in the China App Store. Tibetan-themed apps dealing with news, religious study, tourism, and even games are being censored by Apple. A full list of the censored apps appear below.

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Problem with this 'call for action' is that you can't limit yourself to just CNNIC. There are many other governments and organisations trusted by your browser which are highly suspect.

The only correct action here is to educate yourself on how to verify these certificates, both in your browser as well as your mail client, and use certificate pinning where possible.

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