Many thought the internet would bring democracy to China. Instead it empowered rampant government oppression, and now the censors are turning their attention to the rest of the world.
In the company’s internal chat room, GitHub engineers realized they would be tackling the attack “for some time.” As the hours stretched into days, it became something of a competition between the GitHub engineers and whoever was on the other end of the attack. Working long, frantic shifts, the team didn’t have much time to speculate about the attackers’ identity. As rumors abounded online, GitHub would only say, “We believe the intent of this attack is to convince us to remove a specific class of content.” About a 20-minute drive away, across San Francisco Bay, Nicholas Weaver thought he knew the culprit: China.
Weaver is a network-security expert at the International Computer Science Institute, a research center in Berkeley, California. Together with other researchers, he helped pinpoint the targets of the attack: two GitHub-hosted projects connected to GreatFire.org, a China-based anti-censorship organization. The two projects enabled users in China to visit both GreatFire’s website and the Chinese-language version of the New York Times, both of which are normally inaccessible to users in China. GreatFire, dubbed a “foreign anti-Chinese organization” by the Cyberspace Administration of China, had long been a target of DDoS and hacking attacks, which is why it moved some of its services to GitHub, where they were nominally out of harm’s way.
Weaver found something new and worrisome when he examined the attack. In a paper coauthored with researchers at Citizen Lab, an activist and research group at the University of Toronto, Weaver described a new Chinese cyberweapon that he dubbed the “Great Cannon.” The “Great Firewall” — an elaborate scheme of interrelated technologies for censoring internet content coming from outside China—was already well-known. Weaver and the Citizen Lab researchers found that not only was China blocking bits and bytes of data that were trying to make their way into China, but it was also channeling the flow of data out of China.