In Conflict with China's Internet Security Regulator, Chinese Techies Side with Google, Mozilla

Wall of keys. Photo by Robert via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Wall of keys. Photo by Robert via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Chinese tech experts are openly expressing support for the decision of both Google and Mozilla to revoke security certificates issued by China's Internet Network Information Center.

A security certificate is a technical tool that many websites use in order to provide themselves and their users with an extra layer of reassurance that their traffic is actually being sent to and from the site they think they're interacting with. For example, imagine that you go to your bank's website to transfer some funds. You log in, enter some personal information, and then check to see how much money is in your account. Banks go to great lengths to make sure that only their employees and their clients can see this information — but clever attackers can interfere with the secure connection between you and your bank's website and capture information as it travels from the website to your computer.

Security certificates are a way to guard against such attacks. They have a quiet but powerful presence online, especially with online banking and e-commerce — a site without a certificate can be perceived as illegitimate and untrustworthy. A user will often come across a warning (like the one below) when trying to access a site with an invalid security certificate. Though users should heed these warnings, they often ignore them.

connectionisnotprivate

Google and Mozilla decided this week that they will no longer honor certificates issued by CNNIC, following a joint investigation by Google and CCNIC into the hijacking of several Google domains, including one involving an Egyptian Company called MCS Holdings, which served as an intermediary certificate authority of sorts for CNNIC. In this incident, a man-in-the-middle attack intercepted secure connections between users and their intended destination by directing the users to a separate, disguised website. These kinds of attacks are only possible if the disguised website holds a digital certificate from a trusted authority.

CNNIC, China's main digital certificate authority, described Google's decision as “unacceptable and unintelligible” and urged Google to “take user's rights and interests into full consideration.” Despite CNNIC's promise to prevent any future incidents, Google decided to revoke CNNIC's digital certificate in their products.

Mozilla disclosed on their official blog that since 2012, the company has been communicating with CNNIC over the problem of mis-issuing intermediate certificates to third parties. It has reminded CNNIC that “knowing or intential mis-issuance of certificate […] could result in removal of all the CNNIC certificates from Mozilla's products.”

In the most recent incident, CNNIC argued that the certificate was issued for “testing purposes”, which means it knowingly issued “an unconstrained intermediate certificate” to HCS holding which appears to have violated CNNIC's own certificate practice statement.

These kinds of attacks have become rather common in China. In the discussion thread of Chinese tech blogger William Long's report on Mozilla and Google's decision on his Weibo, one Weibo user mentioned a previous man-in-the-middle attack that targeted Microsoft Hotmail:

本无鬼见愁:前段时间工作用的 Hotmail 邮箱受到一次中间人攻击,然后马上把所有电脑上的 CNNIC 证书设置为永不信任,就算 CNNIC 以后不干这么龌龊的事,能达到国际公认的安全要求,我也再不会信任他家的证书了。

“Non-existed ghost seems sad”: I experienced a [man-in-the-middle attack] when using my Hotmail for my work some while ago. Since then, I changed my computer setting to untrust all the certificates issued by CNNIC. Even though CNNIC promised not to do such a dirty thing again and uphold the international security standard, I will not trust their certificate anymore.

The above-mentioned attack took place in early October 2014, leaving Microsoft's email login page, “login.live.com” under attack in most major cities in China. Similar attacks have played out since 2011, targeting Skype (2011), GitHub (January 2013), Yahoo (September 2014).

Like most Internet users, many voices on Weibo were confused about CNNIC's role in the attack. Bfsu99 reposted penta5kill's explanation in non-technical language:

bfsu99:[…] @penta5kill:回复@舞法舞天丨:就是CNNIC通过假证书骗取浏览器信任然后监控用户,结果被人发现了。你可以理解成间谍把窃听器伪装成手机零配件出售给手机制造商,然后每台出厂的手机自带窃听功能

bfsu99: […] penta5kill in reply to “law and heaven dance”: CNNIC issued a fake certificate [to clients] so that they could cheat the browsers to trust them. That way they can monitor the targeted internet users. Now their acts have been unveiled. It is as if a spy disguised a tapping device as a mobile device and then sold it to the mobile vendor. From there, the mobile phones automatically fulfill a wiretapping function.

Many comments in William Long's discussion thread expressed support for Google and Mozilla's move:

xxxxoxoxoxoxo:Google宣布旗下产品删除CNNIC根证书,给CNNIC闪亮一巴掌,帮助中国人民出了一口气!支持Google,CNNIC这种机构就得扇脸!

xxxxoxoxoxoxo: Google announced that all its products would revoke CNNIC's certificate and slapped CNNIC in its face. It helps Chinese people to retaliate. Support Google. Institutions like CNNIC should be slapped in the face.

聿渔:互联网应该团结起老对大陆网路进行封杀,禁止一切大陆网络信息外链和送出,既然要搞局域网何不帮狗共一把

yuyu, The whole Internet should unite and block the Chinese Intranet, ban all the traffic from coming in and out. If CCP wants to build an Intranet, help them!

____harm:一個騙子問人為什麼不信任他,大家覺得可笑不?

____harm: a liar asks people, why don't you trust me? this is a joke.

As usual, critical comments about CNNIC have been removed from the mainland Chinese intranet, as reported by user “Haipeng in Shanghai” (@海鹏在shanghai):

网上搜了一下,这几天国内关于CNNIC的负面新闻和评论都被删了,国家级流氓确实牛逼

I searched around online, all the negative news and comments about CNNIC have been deleted. State-level thugs are so powerful.

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