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: https://www1.cnnic.cn/gywm/CNNICjs/jj/  

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.

CNNIC-trust.png

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 ..is 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 www.twitter.com on the DNS server 1.2.4.8 (This DNS server is operated by CNNIC), they will not be able to connect to the site and will receive a false response, namely 37.61.54.128, which is not owned by Twitter. The user is hence blocked from accessing Twitter.

DNS2.png

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-win.png

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 https://www1.cnnic.cn/gywm/CNNICjs/jj/. 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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Tue, May 23, 2017

Is China establishing cyber sovereignty in the United States?

Last week Twitter came under attack from a DDoS attack orchestrated by the Chinese authorities. While such attacks are not uncommon for websites like Twitter, this one proved unusual. While the Chinese authorities use the Great Firewall to block harmful content from reaching its citizens, it now uses DDoS attacks to take down content that appears on websites beyond its borders. For the Chinese authorities, it is not simply good enough to “protect” the interests of Chinese citizens at home - in their view of cyber sovereignty, any content that might harm China’s interests must be removed, regardless of where the website is located.

And so last week the Chinese authorities determined that Twitter was the target. In particular, the authorities targeted the Twitter account for Guo Wengui (https://twitter.com/KwokMiles), the rebel billionaire who is slowly leaking information about corrupt Chinese government officials via his Twitter account and through his YouTube videos. Guo appeared to ramp up his whistle-blowing efforts last week and the Chinese authorities, in turn, ramped up theirs.

via https://twitter.com/KwokMiles/status/863689935798374401

Mon, Dec 12, 2016

China is the obstacle to Google’s plan to end internet censorship

It’s been three years since Eric Schmidt proclaimed that Google would chart a course to ending online censorship within ten years. Now is a great time to check on Google’s progress, reassess the landscape, benchmark Google’s efforts against others who share the same goal, postulate on the China strategy and offer suggestions on how they might effectively move forward.

flowers on google china plaque

Flowers left outside Google China’s headquarters after its announcement it might leave the country in 2010. Photo: Wikicommons.

What has Google accomplished since November 2013?

The first thing they have accomplished is an entire rebranding of both Google (now Alphabet) and Google Ideas (now Jigsaw). Throughout this blog post, reference is made to both new and old company names.

Google has started to develop two main tools which they believe can help in the fight against censorship. Jigsaw’s DDoS protection service, Project Shield, is effectively preventing censorship-inspired DDoS attacks and recently helped to repel an attack on Brian Krebs’ blog. The service is similar to other anti-DDoS services developed by internet freedom champions and for-profit services like Cloudflare.

Thu, Nov 24, 2016

Facebook: Please, not like this

Facebook is considering launching a censorship tool that would enable the world’s biggest social network to “enter” the China market. Sadly, nobody will be surprised by anything that Mark Zuckerberg decides to do in order to enter the China market. With such low expectations, Facebook is poised to usurp Apple as China’s favorite foreign intelligence gathering partner. If the company launches in China using this strategy they will also successfully erase any bargaining power that other media organizations may hold with the Chinese authorities.

Tue, Jul 05, 2016

GreatFire.org now testing VPN speed and stability in China

There is a commonly held belief in China that if you have a VPN that works then you should keep quiet about it. In terms of freedom of access to information, the problem with this approach is that access to knowledge suddenly is a secret. Today we are launching a project that we hope will destroy that model.

Our newest website, Circumvention Central (CC), aims to provide real-time information and data about circumvention solutions that work in China. Since 2011, we have been collecting data about blocked websites in China and now we will add data about the effectiveness of VPNs and other circumvention tools.

We are launching CC with four main objectives in mind.

Our first objective is to help to grow the number of Chinese who circumvent censorship restrictions in China. By sharing our information and data about these tools, we hope to show a wider audience which circumvention tools are working.

Our second objective is to improve the circumvention experience for users in China by bringing transparency to tool performance. We will measure these tools on speed (how quickly popular websites are loaded) and on stability (the extent to which popular websites load successfully).

Sat, May 07, 2016

The New York Times vs. The Chinese Authorities

Could the New York Times be setting the best path forward for news organizations in China?
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Comments

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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