Outlook grim - Chinese authorities attack Microsoft

On January 17, we received reports that Microsoft’s email system, Outlook (which was merged with Hotmail in 2013), was subjected to a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack in China.

The following screenshot shows what happens when a Chinese user accesses Outlook via an email client (in this case, Ice-dove):

We have tested Outlook to verify the attack and have produced the same results. IMAP and SMTP for Outlook were under a MITM attack. Do note however that the web interfaces (https://outlook.com and https://login.live.com/ ) were not affected. The attack lasted for about a day and has now ceased.

This form of attack is especially devious because the warning messages users receive from their email clients are much less noticeable than the warning messages delivered to modern browsers (see screenshot at the end of this post for comparison).

(Sample error message from default iPhone mail client)

In addition, email clients normally run in the background. Users will only see an abrupt pop-up warning when the client tries to automatically retrieve messages. Users will then be able to tap on a “continue” button and ignore the warning message. As the user did not initiate the retrieval of emails, most users will not think twice about clicking on “continue” and will likely attribute the warning message to a network problem. If users do click on the “continue” button, then all of their emails, contacts and passwords will be logged by the attackers.

This attack comes within a month of the complete blocking of Gmail (which is still entirely inaccessible). Because of the similarity between this attack and previous, recent MITM attacks in China (on Google, Yahoo and Apple), we once again suspect that Lu Wei and the Cyberspace Administration of China have orchestrated this attack or have willingly allowed the attack to happen. If our accusation is correct, this new attack signals that the Chinese authorities are intent on further cracking down on communication methods that they cannot readily monitor.

This new MITM attack comes three months after the iCloud MITM attack, which was widely reported in the media and which prompted Apple’s CEO Tim Cook to fly to China to raise the matter directly with the Chinese authorities. The Chinese foreign press spokesperson denied the “hacking” allegation and Apple has not made any public statements addressing the outcome of the discussions. However Apple did add a Chinese language help page (and an English one) which addresses similar issues. Apple refers to episodes of this nature as “organized network attacks”.

At the time of the iCloud attack, Google (over CERNET) and Yahoo were both experiencing MITM attacks and Outlook (web portal only) was under a MITM attack for a short period of time. Since the wide reporting of these attacks, GFW had not attempted any large scale attacks until this one. The authorities are most likely continuing to test their MITM technology. The authorities may also be gauging user response. By keeping track of how many users ignore the certificate warnings, the authorities will be able to determine the effectiveness of this type of attack.

We strongly recommend that users never bypass certificate error messages by clicking “continue”.

Call to Action

We suspect that the Cyberspace Administration of China, which is directly in charge of censorship and GFW, is directly responsible for the MITM attack against Outlook, and the recent related MITM attacks in China. CNNIC (China Internet Network Information Center) is directly governed by the Cyberspace Administration of China and should not be trusted as a certificate authority by major software vendors.

We have outlined CNNIC's dubious history in a previous blog post. Given the dangerous nature of this attack on Outlook, we again strongly encourage organizations, including Microsoft and Apple, to immediately revoke trust for the CNNIC certificate authority.

What are certificates used for?

Certificates are used primarily to verify the identity of a person or device, authenticate a service, or encrypt files.

What is a certification authority (CA)?  

Certification authorities are the organizations that issue certificates. They establish and verify the authenticity of public keys that belong to people or other certification authorities, and they verify the identity of a person or organization that asks for a certificate.

Technical Details

IMAP/SMTP are commonly used on mobile email clients (e.g the default mail application on iPhones) and desktop email clients like Thunderbird. Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) is a protocol which allows users to connect to the same mailbox through multiple devices (i.e. your desktop, mobile, etc.). Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) is typically used by users to send messages to a server which are then relayed to the recipient.

Wikipedia defines a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack in the following way:

The man-in-the-middle attack...is a form of active eavesdropping in which the attacker makes independent connections with the victims and relays messages between them, making them believe that they are talking directly to each other over a private connection, when in fact the entire conversation is controlled by the attacker.

Tests

To reproduce the result in a Firefox browser, we first configured Firefox to allow access on port 993 which is the port used by IMAP. We then accessed https://imap-mail.outlook.com:993. We immediately received the warning message. As you can see, the certificate is self-signed, which is consistent with previous MITM attacks in China.

  outlook-MITM.png

The certificate error message shown in Chrome. Chrome was configured to allow connections via port 993.

The fake certificate used in the attack:

https://github.com/chengr28/RevokeChinaCerts/blob/master/Windows/Certs/[Fake]AnyHotmailCom_201501.crt

WireCapture:

https://www.cloudshark.org/captures/8bf76336e67d

Reports:

https://www.v2ex.com/t/163062 and https://www.v2ex.com/t/163018.

 

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Mon, Aug 03, 2020

Announcing the Release of GreatFire Appmaker

GreatFire (https://en.greatfire.org/), 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 (https://appmaker.greatfire.org/) 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 (https://freebrowser.org/en) 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 (http://manyvoices.news/).

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 https://applecensorship.com, 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.

Thu, Jun 06, 2019

Report Shines Spotlight on Apple’s Censorship Practices in China

The newest Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index makes recommendations on what companies and governments need to do in order to improve the protection of internet users’ human rights around the world. Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) works to promote freedom of expression and privacy on the internet by creating global standards and incentives for companies to respect and protect users’ rights.

In their 2019 Accountability Index, RDR looks at the policies of 24 of the world’s most important internet companies in respect to freedom of expression and privacy and highlights the companies that have made improvements and those companies that need to do more. RDR notes that:

Insufficient transparency makes it easier for private parties, governments, and companies themselves to abuse their power over online speech and avoid accountability.

In particular, the report highlights how Apple has abused their power over online speech, and notes instances of this in China. According to the report, Apple has not disclosed data around the content that it removes from its App Store when faced with requests from the government authorities.

While [Apple] disclosed data about government requests to restrict accounts, it disclosed no data about content removal requests, such as requests to remove apps from its App Store. Apple revealed little about policies and practices affecting freedom of expression, scoring below all other U.S. companies in this category.

The report makes intelligent and sensible recommendations for governments. However, the recommendations also highlight how difficult it is to have these discussions with governments like China’s.

Thu, Nov 30, 2017

About those 674 apps that Apple censored in China

Apple opened the door on its censorship practices in China - but just a crack.
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Comments

Removing CNNIC root isn't practical, as it prevents the company from selling devices in China. Please make more practical recommendations. For example, only accept CNNIC-signed certificates for .CN domains. That would allow CNNIC to continue to exercise control over Chinese domains without jeopardizing the security of the entire Internet. (This is basically "TLD pinning" for root CAs.)

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