Chinese authorities compromise millions in cyberattacks

On March 17th 2015, our websites and partner websites came under a DDoS attack. We had never been subjected to an attack of this magnitude before. This attack was unusual in nature as we discovered that the Chinese authorities were steering millions of unsuspecting internet users worldwide to launch the attack. We believe this is a major cyber-security and economic threat for the people of China.

How did that get there?

After calling on the Internet community for help and assistance, independent researchers with access to our log files discovered the following facts:

  • Millions of global internet users, visiting thousands of websites hosted inside and outside China, were randomly receiving malicious code which was used to launch cyberattacks against GreatFire.org’s websites.

  • Baidu's Analytics code (h.js) was one of the files replaced by malicious code which triggered the attacks. Baidu Analytics, akin to Google Analytics, is used by thousands of websites. Any visitor to any website using Baidu Analytics or other Baidu resources would have been exposed to the malicious code. A list of Baidu resources known to be used for the attack appears in the report.

  • That malicious code is sent to “any reader globally” without distinguishing that user’s geographical location, meaning that the authorities did not just launch this attack using Chinese internet users -  they compromised internet users and websites everywhere in the world.

  • The tampering takes places someplace between when the traffic enters China and when it hits Baidu’s servers. This is consistent with previous malicious actions and points to the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) being directly involved in these attacks.

More technical details of the attack can be read in a research report titled “Using Baidu to steer millions of computers to launch denial of service attacks”.

GitHub Suffers DDoS Attack

On March 25 the Chinese authorities used the same techniques to launch a DDoS attack on GitHub - our page was one of the main targets. To mitigate the DDoS attack, we mirrored content on our GitHub repository and asked users to access that page directly. The attackers then switched their attack to our GitHub page.

GitHub stated:

We are currently experiencing the largest DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack in github.com's history. The attack began around 2AM UTC on Thursday, March 26, and involves a wide combination of attack vectors. These include every vector we've seen in previous attacks as well as some sophisticated new techniques that use the web browsers of unsuspecting, uninvolved people to flood github.com with high levels of traffic. Based on reports we've received, we believe the intent of this attack is to convince us to remove a specific class of content.

We believe that “a specific class of content” refers to GreatFire.org’s GitHub page. To combat the DDoS attack from malicious JS code injected by CAC, GitHub modified https://github.com/greatfire/ to show a message to users: "WARNING: malicious javascript detected on this domain".

The URL to access our GitHub page ( https://github.com/greatfire/) is hard coded into the malicious JS. Our page is still accessible and only users who have been exposed to the malicious code will see the warning pop up message while browsing other websites. The GitHub attack is still ongoing and the malicious JS is still being injected for approximately 1% of foreign visitors to websites that are using elements from Baidu.

 

The Implications

When we first blogged about this attack we did not want to level accusations without evidence. Based on the technical forensic evidence provided above and the detailed research that has been done on the GitHub attack, we can now confidently conclude that the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) is responsible for both of these attacks.

Hijacking the computers of millions of innocent internet users around the world is particularly striking as it illustrates the utter disregard the Chinese authorities have for international as well as even Chinese internet governance norms. There was no way for an average internet user to prevent themselves from being exploited as part of this attack. This statement from Lu Wei, the head of the Cyberspace Administration of China, encapsulates our thoughts and concerns about these attacks:

We should establish an Internet order that helps maintain security. The Internet is a worldwide platform for sharing information. It is “a community of common interests”. No country is immune to such global challenges as cybercrime, hacking and invasion of privacy. In cyberspace, it is becoming increasingly difficult to uphold security for one’s own country by sacrificing that of others. It is also not practical to pursue one’s own interests by rejecting others’ needs. China is also a victim of hacking. We have always firmly opposed all forms of Internet attacks.

Inserting malicious code in this manner can only be done via the Chinese Internet backbone. Even if CAC did not launch the DDoS attack directly, they are responsible for managing the internet in China and it is not possible that they did not know what was happening. These attacks have occurred under CAC’s watch and would have needed the approval of Lu Wei.

Lu Wei and the Cyberspace Administration of China have clearly escalated the tactics that they use to control information. The Great Firewall has switched from being a passive, inbound filter to being an active and aggressive outbound one. This is a frightening development and the implications of this action extend beyond control of information on the internet. In one quick movement, the authorities have shifted from enforcing strict censorship in China to enforcing Chinese censorship on internet users worldwide. CAC can launch these attacks quickly and easily and they have the technical and financial resources behind them to continue to launch DDoS attacks against any website, anywhere in the world.

These attacks also illustrate the shortsighted nature of the Chinese authorities. Weaponizing Chinese internet services stifles global confidence in Chinese entrepreneurs and contributes to the fragmentation of the global internet. The SEC has already asked Weibo to explain how the censorship apparatus works - Baidu, a publicly-listed company in the US, may be called in to do the same.   

We correctly predicted last year that China would increase their use of MITM attacks in an effort to censor encrypted websites. We now sadly predict that the DDoS attacks against us and GitHub are likely to signal a ramping up of attacks against foreign internet properties. These kinds of attacks should draw scorn and criticism from government officials of all countries around the world.

It is important to note that throughout this attack, our Android FreeBrowser app has not been impacted and is still helping thousands of Chinese internet users to bypass censorship and the great firewall every day.

On behalf of the millions of unsuspecting users manipulated by these actions, we call on Lu Wei and the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) to bring an end to these DDoS attacks immediately and to apologise for their blatantly disrespectful and dangerous actions.

Further Information

After the attacks started, many overseas Chinese saw these warning messages and started to post screenshots on social media.

One person uploaded a video to YouTube showing what happens when a user is injected with malicious JS in the GitHub DDoS attack. You can also see GitHub’s mitigation efforts in this video.

There are fascinating details about the attack on GitHub and changes made by the Cyberspace Administration of China to maintain the attack.

An earlier report about an unrelated GFW upgrade stated that “Every machine in China has the potential be a part of a massive DDOS attack on innocent sites,” and “They have weaponized their entire population.” That was too optimistic. Now CAC has weaponized the entire Internet population.

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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?

Thu, Feb 18, 2016

From the desk of Lu Wei: Apple, encryption and China

Lu Wei, Director of the Cyberspace Administration of China, offers some friendly help to FBI Director James Comey.
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