China Has a New Internet Weapon Against Freedom of Speech

China's new Internet tool, the Great Cannon. (Image: Pixabay/ CC0 Public Domain)
China's new Internet tool, the Great Cannon. (Image: Pixabay/ CC0 Public Domain)

GitHub was the target of a malicious distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack a few weeks ago. The attack focused on pages owned by pro-Chinese free speech websites to stop Chinese citizens from accessing outside information.

Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab have released a report about a Chinese cyber-weapon they call the “Great Cannon,” which seems to be the source of the attacks.

The report said that the Great Cannon is similar to Quantum, which is a tool developed by the U.S. to track potential terrorists and criminals abroad. Edward Snowden, a system administrator for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), revealed the existence of Quantum for the first time in 2013 when he fled to Hong Kong and then Moscow, The Wall Street Journal said.

Beijing has so far has used the Great Cannon to stop the flow of information among people working to promote political rights.

China’s Great Cannon:

The researchers began looking into the GitHub attack as soon as it happened. Bill Marczak is the lead researcher at Citizen Lab and explained to Business Insider that as soon as they saw the strange traffic patterns causing the DDoS attacks, they thought: “Oh, this was interesting.”

What was interesting, explained fellow co-lead Nicholas Weaver of UC Berkeley, was that they observed traffic being blocked. Whatever was happening to Github was blocking communication.

The Great Firewall has been the Chinese regime’s censurer filter for years, and while it is a tool for censorship, it has never been use to block communication.

China cybercensors attack outside its borders with the ‘Great Cannon’:

The Great Cannon maliciously redirected users to two anti-censorship sites, Github and Greatfire.org.

The volume of traffic was so great that it crashed their servers in what is known as a ‘denial of service’ attack.

According to Citizen Lab, Chinese government-controlled servers directed this illegal act, said The Wall Street Journal.

The researchers have concluded that the Great Cannon is “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.”

This means that anyone who tries to visit an unsecured website could unknowing be used in the act of cyberwarfare. Users that visit an unencrypted Chinese website could have a code placed into their systems before they even reached the site, which cause’s the web user to be part of a DDoS attack.

The question has to be asked, what is the potential of the Great Cannon as a spying tool. “With a few tweaks, the Great Cannon could be used to spy on anyone who happens to fetch content hosted on a Chinese computer, even by visiting a non-Chinese website that contains Chinese advertising content,” The New York Times writes on their website.

Its internal coding can be used to redirect traffic, or to launch assaults on unwitting Web victims, but it also has the ability to be used for surveillance. The report noted there are a lot of similarities to the Quantum system, which was reported to have been used to help the NSA and British authorities.

A CNN report on the Great Cannon:

The report also noted how open China was with using the tool. “The injection happened well after the time GitHub mitigated the attack,” said Marczak., This meant China didn’t care if anyone saw. In fact, it is very likely China wanted to be seen.

“It was a very public demonstration of the capability,”

A South China Morning Post report that the Great Cannon has been under development for about a year. This means China’s hacking bureaucracy geared up to produce this new product soon after the Snowden leaks, The Wall Street Journal said.

Does Edward Snowden have something to answer for? I think there is a place for whistleblowers, but revealing information entails a level of responsibility.

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