China launches new cyber attack weapon

The “Great Cannon” has entered the cyberwar lexicon alongside the “Great Firewall of China” after a new tool for censorship in the nation was named and described by researchers from the University of Toronto.

The first use of the Great Cannon came in late March, when the coding site GitHub was flooded by traffic, leaving it intermittently unresponsive for multiple days. The attack, using a method called distributed denial of service, appeared to be targeting two specific users of the site: the New York Times‘s Chinese mirror and anticensorship organisation, GreatFire.org.

Both users focus their efforts on allowing Chinese residents to bypass the country’s Great Firewall – the system China uses to restrict access to parts of the internet.

The attack, which continued for almost two weeks, was observed by researchers led by the University of Toronto’s Bill Marczak. They concluded that it provides evidence of a new censorship tool above and beyond the Great Firewall.

“While the attack infrastructure is co-located with the Great Firewall, the attack was carried out by a separate offensive system, with different capabilities and design, that we term the ‘Great Cannon’,” the researchers write.

“The Great Cannon is not simply an extension of the Great Firewall but a distinct attack tool that hijacks traffic to (or presumably from) individual IP addresses, and can arbitrarily replace unencrypted content as a man-in-the-middle.”

Where the Great Firewall was a tool for largely passive censorship – preventing access to material and providing the Chinese state with the ability to spy on its residents – the Great Cannon provides the ability to rewrite the internet on the fly.

When used offensively, that ability can turn a normal internet user into a vector of attack. In the case of the GitHub attacks, the Great Cannon “intercepted traffic sent to Baidu infrastructure servers”, web servers run by China’s largest search engine “that host commonly used analytics, social or advertising scripts”.

Roughly 1.75% of the time it took that traffic returned a malicious script, enlisting the unwitting web surfer in the hacking campaign against GitHub. The scripts were not complex, doing little more than sending requests for content to GitHub, but the sheer quantity of users affected proved difficult for the site to handle. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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