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

No details have emerged on attacks against his YouTube channel, but Guo did share tweets about the attack on his Twitter account, including unverified correspondence from a Twitter engineer. (We reached out to Twitter for comment but have not heard back from them at the time of publication.) In this correspondence, the engineer details the measures that Twitter had to take to thwart the attack, including adding hundreds of servers, blocking IP addresses from China and redirecting traffic from the desktop Twitter site to the mobile site. The engineer expresses surprise at the scale and the force of the attack. Users who were logged into Twitter could still view Guo’s account. However, those who were not logged in only saw an error page. Late last week, the attack subsided and Guo’s account returned to normal.

via https://twitter.com/KwokMiles/status/863689004390260736

This is not the first time that the Chinese authorities have flooded websites with unwanted traffic as a means of taking them offline. In March 2015, GreatFire came under a similar attack. Citizen Lab subsequently coined the weapon the Great Cannon.

Since March 2015, it is unknown how many times the Chinese authorities have launched similar attacks against foreign websites. But this attack gives us a clearer idea of China’s vision of cyber sovereignty. Chinese censorship efforts have escalated in a way that destroys the traditional narrative surrounding Chinese information control. This new style of attack also makes it harder to detect Chinese censorship efforts.

China is now not simply content with blocking foreign websites. It is almost certain that the blocking of Twitter’s live streaming app Periscope last week was related to these attempts to silence Guo Wengui. The blocking of websites in China is so commonplace now that the censorship of Periscope barely registered. Now nobody is surprised when a website gets blocked and this blasé reaction is playing directly into the hands of the Chinese authorities. Website blocks are now seen as boring and simply part of China’s continuing effort to establish cyber sovereignty.

But this non-reaction to Chinese censorship is helping to pave the way for a new breed of Chinese censorship. Why is nobody outraged that China is attacking Twitter and other foreign websites? When did it become okay for the Chinese authorities to establish cyber sovereignty in other parts of the world? It is understandable that Twitter may not want to draw attention to this episode (lest they encourage others to launch similar attacks) but why is there no public outcry otherwise? Is everybody trying to curry favour with the Chinese authorities? Does nobody want to wake the sleeping dragon?

Most importantly, why is there no retaliation? Tit-for-tat cyber attacks are not optimal but surely the US government should have a vested interest in making sure that American companies do not get sabotaged by foreign powers. At the very least, the current President should be alarmed that his preferred communications medium is under threat. While Obama and Xi agreed to lay off economic cyber espionage, why are China’s attempts to take a hostile Twitter account offline and the blocking of the company’s sister property not considered to be economic “dirty tricks”? How much longer are we going to continue to tolerate the aggression of the Chinese authorities in cyberspace?

 

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Thu, Nov 30, 2017

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flowers on google china plaque

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

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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.

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