Controlling internet traffic domestically was only the first step for China. Recent reports claim the government in Beijing has prepared a new internet weapon that, according to initial assessments by specialists, seeks to expand censorship across Chinese borders.
Researchers from top universities from the United States and Canada took another look at last month’s attack against the GitHub and Greatfire.org servers, which is believed to have been orchestrated by the Chinese government. Everybody assumed initially that Beijing used its infamous internet censorship tool, nicknamed the Great Firewall.
But in a paper published on Friday, a group of researchers – some with the University of California, Berkeley and Princeton University from the US, as well as other from Canada’s University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) – worked together and came to a different conclusion.
China’s censorship attack used some of the Great Firewall capabilities to redirect internet traffics from its national search engine, Baidu, towards the sites they intended to bring down. While the Great Firewall offered the technological basis for such a maneuver, the study showed that the attack itself was carried out by a completely separate tool, which the researchers named the Great Cannon.
The two sites identified as the Great Cannon’s first targets can be considered to be routine targets for China’s censorship brigade. Greatfire.org was a platform mirroring the content of some of the sites banned in China, while GitHub was offering programming support for those who wished to avoid government censorship.
But according to the research team’s first estimations, the weapon could have far greater capabilities. “The operational deployment of the Great Cannon represents a significant escalation in state-level information control,” one of the authors assessed the instrument. Using the new weapon, China is able to intercept the internet identity of foreign sites accessed from the motherland and then redirect malicious traffic in order to block any kind of access to those sites, both from China and from abroad.
While at a first glance the Great Cannon only looks like a tool that enhances Beijing’s defensive potential, the researchers argue that nothing can stop it from becoming an extremely powerful spying tool. Chinese authorities could get into the computer of anyone accessing content even remotely related to China, such as Chinese sponsored adds posted on a non-Chinese website.
The interesting part is that China isn’t the only country employing such elaborate spying tools. Among the classified documents revealed by Edward Snowden – the NSA whistleblower – there were also ‘blueprints’ of similar machines developed by the National Security Agency and by GCHQ, its equivalent in Great Britain.
Referring to this incident, the researchers argue that China cannot be held accountable for unleashing the Great Cannon on the Internet. “This precedent will make it difficult for Western governments to credibly complain about others utilizing similar techniques,” the report concluded.
NSA officials argued that they use their machine for targeted surveillance for purposes of national security only, while hinting that China is actively using its Great Cannon to crush all opposition on the Internet. But for the rest of the average internet users, finding out the truth might require a Great Cannon of their own.
Image Source: Andrew McAfee
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