Posts tagged “Google”

google.cn -> google.com.hk



Yesterday Google began redirecting requests for google.cn to google.com.hk effectively ending its years of self-censorship in China. To be clear, Google has not ended censorship in China — Google has ended its own self-censorship.

While searches within the .hk google are not censored by Google, they will still be affected by China’s keyword filtering. This means that queries for certain terms will not get through to google.com.hk search engine and the end user in China will not get any results.

Even if a user in China uses search queries that are not filtered by China and retrieves results from google’s .hk version, they will still be affected by China’s filtering if they click on the link and try and view those results directly.

What’s the difference? Users in China will be affected by China’s filtering, not Google’s. The difference is in the user’s experience — instead of retrieving results and carrying on as if censorship did not exist (disclaimer aside), the user now experiences the censorship first hand.

It is true that the user will not get any results from Google for queries that are filtered by China. this may results in quantitatively less information, but necessarily qualitatively (see here and here). Even if a controversial site slipped through the self-censorship, it would be picked up by China’s filtering if the user tried to access it directly.

The move removes Google from an ethically challenged situation and has raised awareness globally regarding China’s censorship practices.

Remember: Microsoft and Yahoo! are still censoring their China facing search engines.

Google, Yahoo, Microsoft Still Censoring In China



Today MSNBC reported that Google “appears” to have stopped censoring its search engine in China, google.cn.

This is not true.

In Search Monitor Project: Toward a Measure of Transparency I tried to carefully document the different censorship practices among Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Baidu. (Here are some more posts on this issue.) In short, it is difficult to determine the relationship between queries and censorship, so I focused on domains.

NBC assumed that the censorship was keyword driven (there are some key word driven elements) but a lot of it is based on de-listing (or not indexing) web sites.

For what it is worth, I noticed that a lot of the content I found to be blocked in 2008 was available BEFORE the Google announcement in January. For example, around the Olympics in Beijing a lot of previously blocked content was accessible (although the search engines were still censoring more than China was at that time).

But anyway, a closer look at the current search engine censorship reveals some interesting issues. Here’s a google.cn search for Tiananmen, notice the “tankman” picture is there, twice.

But look closely, what is Google indexing? Why those domains are “tieba.baidu.com” and “q.163.com”. Baidu and 163, both very popular domestic Chinese sites. The images are not hosted on thoese sites, but are linked from them. So both Baidu and 163 are displaying page that have the image too!

What about Yahoo (yahoo.cn) and Microsoft’s Bing (with region set to PRC)? Yep, these images are there too!

Although Google has consistently performed better (as in less censorship) in my tests over the years, Google’s censorship behaviour is not all that different than the rest.

The Aurora Mess



The data about Aurora has always felt just a little off for me. Maybe its that everyone writing about it just has their own piece of the puzzle to analyse, without the detail required to accurately link the pieces together.

When it comes to the command and control infrastructure, maybe it’s that some obfuscated the domain names while others published them, but with a domain on the blog post that’s not in technical write up. Maybe it is that some have significantly bigger lists than others (that include duplicates as well as the root domain for a dynamic dns provider that hands out sub-domains).

Maybe it is that some name domains that hosted the exploit but do not provide details on C&C’s that compromised hosts check-in with. Maybe the difference between the long lists and short lists is that some are including “copycats” — sites that host the IE exploit. Since “Aurora” is now being used to refer to the specific attack on Google, the 0day vulnerability in Internet Explorer (that was apparently used), and the malware that was apparently dropped by the exploit (Hydraq) interchangeably it is difficult to get a handle on exactly what is what.

Google says the attacks were “highly sophisticated and targeted” (as does McAfee, Mandiant, and iDefense) while Damballa says that it was the work of amateurs, Dancho Danchev says that “[i]t’s in fact [an] average team” and Mikko Hypponen says “[t]his wasn’t in my opinion ground-breaking as an attack. We see this fairly regularly.” OK, well, that’s quite the continuum of “sophistication.” Back to that in a bit.

Attribution? The New York Times reported that the attacks were traced to two schools in China: Shanghai Jiaotong University and the Lanxiang Vocational School. While some have drawn links between these schools and the Chinese military others cast doubt on it. The Financial Times reportsthat “a freelance security consultant in his 30s” in China wrote (part of) the Internet Explorer exploit but “is not a full-time government worker, did not launch the attack, and in fact would prefer not be used in such offensive efforts.” Hmm. OK. Mandiant indicated that the quality of the exploit points toward some kind of relationship with the Chinese state, while iDefense, looking at the command and control infrastructure, pretty unambiguously states that the Chinese State was being the attacks whether or not “amateurs” were used.

So here we are at the crossroads of the exploit, the malware, and the command and control infrastructure. And as Richard Bejtlich points out there’s more to it than just the technical aspects of malware, there is, as Mike Cloppert describes, a range of indicators that allow one to characterize the adversary behind the attacks. Clearly, most of us relying on public sources do not have a sufficient level of detailed information to analyse the attack on Google with such depth.

This brings me back to the Damballa report. I really liked this report because is focused on the command and control infrastructure, it was based on interesting data collected via passive DNS data collection and included many interesting conclusion and enough detail to begin connecting their data with other publicly available data. In fact, one of the most interesting observations for me was evidence that the DNS resolutions indicate that Google China was compromised first, followed by Google in Mountain View some 17 hours later. Still, there are parts of the report that are confusing to me.

The Damballa report starts by looking at “five CnC domain names associated with the Aurora botnet” that were publicly disclosed, however, these domain names are not explicitly stated in the report. The most seemingly authoritative list, from Symantec, for example, lists 7 domains. The starting point appears to be “blog1.servebeer.com”. This one is common to all lists (except Symantec’s technical write-up). The domain servebeer.com is a Dymanic DNS serverice offered by No-IP that allows people to register sub-domains such as “blog1.” Based on factors such as “DDNS credentials” Damballa linked the following domains together (four of which are not disclosed).

CnC_Domain.1
CnC_Domain.2
CnC_Domain.3
CnC_Domain.4
blog1.servebeer.com

At some point each of the 5 domains above pointed at at least one of the “IP addresses associated with two of the CnC servers used during the Aurora attack.” The IP’s were not disclosed. Therefore, I am not entirely sure of how the next group of domain names are linked.

baltika1.servebeer.com
m7been.zapto.org
miecros.info
mcsmc.org
yahoo.blogdns.net
filoups.info
google.homeunix.com

While the last 2 domains (filoups.info and google.homeunix.com) appear on the US CERT list of “Aurora” domains, the first 5 domains (baltika1.servebeer.com, m7been.zapto.org, miecros.info, mcsmc.org, and yahoo.blogdns.net) do not.

Damballa then links this second group to “two distinct families of Fake AV Alert / Scareware: Login Software 2009 and Microsoft Antispyware Services.”

Fake AV Alert / Scareware
mcsmc.org
micronetsys.org
mnprfix.cn
filoups.info
miecros.info

Fake Microsoft Antispyware
ec2-79-125-21-42.eu-west-1.compute.amazonaws.com
ip-173-201-21-161.ip.secureserver.net
inekoncuba.inekon.co.cu
google.homeunix.com
yahoo.blogdns.net
voanews.ath.cx
ymail.ath.cx

So, filoups.info links the “Fake AV Alert / Scareware” to the US CERT list of “Aurora” domains and google.homeunix.com links the “Fake Microsoft Antispyware” to the US CERT list of “Aurora” domains. Both appear in Damballa’s second cluster (which has an unclear relationship with the first cluster).

Using the Damballa list along with samples from ThreatExpert I compiled a list that included a few additional domain names. I included domain names that the individual piece of malware requested that had similar paths to those identiofied by Damballa and excluded those that appeared to be other malware or SEO URLs.

For example, one sample contains google.homeunix.com, yahoo.blogdns.net, tyuqwer.blogdns.com, and tyuqwer.dyndns.org. The domains google.homeunix.com and tyuqwer.dyndns.org appear on the US CERT list, yahoo.blogdns.net appears on the Damballa list and tyuqwer.blogdns.com appears on neither. Another sample contains google.homeunix.com tyuqwer.dyndns.org blogspot.blogsite.org and voanews.ath.cx. All of these domains appear on the US CERT list google.homeunix.com and voanews.ath.cx appear on the Damballa list.

The next grouping largely focuses on “mcsmc.org” abnd the domain names that apear with it and request similar URL paths but are not in the Damballa report.

virtualmits.com
syswa.cn
thcway.info
searchnix.info
wscntgy.com
google-analitics.in
licagreem.in
jusched.in

The relationships between the domains can be built our further, especially if we include common IP addresses. I think this indicates that there are a variety of conclusion being drawn based on data that comes bundled with a variety of assumptions. For example, is the sample detailed by Symatec the same — as opposed to similar to — the one used in attack on Google? How were these “master” lists — such as the one by US CERT created? How were these domains bundled together?

In the Damballa report in particular there are a few additional assumptions that I am not entirely sure of. First, I’m not sure that DDNS == amateur. Many of the targeted attack on civil society and human rights groups I’ve looked at used DDNS. And while many DDNS providers do cooperate with the security industry and law enforcement, the ones in China (like 3322.org) don’t. Moreover, I’m not sure that “amateur” necessarily excludes state involvement — even governments can engage in behaviour that would be considered amateurish. And would you want to tip off state involvement by being uber3l33t? The logic just starts to become circular after a while, especially if you only focus on the technical aspects.

I mean, if we take Google at their word and believe that “a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists” how do we explain the connection to (probably Eastern European) SEO and related common malware?

Even if we assume that the “master” list is accurate, Damballa does raise some alternative explanations for the association between the two:

  • it is possible that two different groups purchased the services of the same crimeware group (probably the same people behind Operation Aurora) to distribute and manage their malware family. Or the crimeware group rented out different variants of the same malware to different groups with different intentions.
  • There is no natural progression seen between the two families. Usually malware writers evolve in both technology and protection of their creation but these two families did not show any related evolution. The malware families appear to exist independently, and then become superseded by Trojan.Hydraq.

The relationship between crimeware — or common botnet operators/kits — and targeted malware attacks in order to extract sensitive data (some might call this espionage) is something I tried to explore in “The “Kneber” Botnet, Spear Phishing Attacks and Crimeware.” Again, given the lack of precise data I don’t claim to know what’s going on in the Google case — in fact, I may have just made it worse with this post. But if we accepts the links that Damballa has found to be accurate it does raise the important issue of the relationship between crimeware and espionage.

But, maybe, we’re jumping to conclusions based on faulty assumptions. I just don’t know. It is still a mess.

Decrypting the Google statement



There have been many articles saying that Google is pulling out China. Well, that’s not exactly what Google said.

Here is exactly what Google stated:

We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

Google is not leaving China. At least not yet.

Look at what was actually said:

1) Google is not willing want to censor, so Google will 2) engage in discussion with the Chinese government and, 3) in order to operate an uncensored search engine within the law.

Law is the key word here. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Jiang Wu, stated:

China welcomes international Internet companies to conduct business within the country according to law

The question is, what law says that Google cannot index the web site of the BBC news? Anyone know?

In 2006 when Google started censoring google.cn in China I asked:

What specific law or court order is being complied with in China?

It is 2010, still no answer.

I think it is a reasonable question for Google to ask.

Google’s New Approach



Google has just announced that there were successful attacks against their infrastructure resulting in the theft of intellectual property. Google traced the attacks to China and although the attribution regarding the Chinese government is unclear, Google also discovered that the attackers also attempted to compromise the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

But the most interesting result was due to the combination of attacks, surveillance and censorship Google has decided to reassess their operations in China:

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

The decision to review our business operations in China has been incredibly hard, and we know that it will have potentially far-reaching consequences. We want to make clear that this move was driven by our executives in the United States, without the knowledge or involvement of our employees in China who have worked incredibly hard to make Google.cn the success it is today. We are committed to working responsibly to resolve the very difficult issues raised.

Wow.

The connection between censorship, surveillance and attacks is the key. Censorship, such as the blocking of web sites, is fairly crude but effective when combined with targeted surveillance and attacks. While many, especially the technically savvy, can circumvent China’s filtering system, the “GFW”, using tools such as Psiphon and Tor most Chinese citizens do not. The GFW doesn’t have to be 100% technically effective, it just has to serve as a reminder to those in China about what content is acceptable and that which should be avoided. The objective is to influence behaviour toward self-censorship, so that most will not actively seek out banned information of the means to bypass controls and access it.

The nexus of censorship, surveillance and malware attacks allows China is the key to China’s information control policies. It is not just about the GFW. Internet users in China face complex threats that are heavily dependent on additional factors, such as involvement in political activities, that involve targeted attacks and surveillance. China chooses when, where and how to exercise this granular control.

The InfoWar Monitor — which is a partnership between the Citizen Lab, Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto and The SecDev Group (and SecDev.cyber which focuses on Internet threats) — has been focusing on these threats. For example, in a report “Breaching Trust: An analysis of surveillance and security practices on China’s TOM-Skype platform” we documented how Tom-Skype (the Chinese version of Skype) was censoring and capturing politically sensitive content. In “Tracking GhostNet: Investigating a Cyber Espionage Network” we documented targeted malware attacks that compromised over 1,295 infected computers in 103 countries, 30% of which are high-value targets, including ministries of foreign affairs, embassies, international organizations, news media, and NGOs.

Google’s decision to re-asses their operations in China is courageous. I strongly hope that Microsoft, Yahoo! and others follow Google’s lead — as, to their credit, they have done in the past. In “Search Monitor Project: Toward a Measure of Transparency” I compared the censorship practices of Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft as well as the domestic Chinese search engine Baidu and found that all followed Google’s lead to some extent by at least disclosing their censorship practices to their users. I hope that they stand by Google.

China, the ball is in your court.