For years, China´s “Great Firewall” has embodied the Chinese government´s ultimate project to restrict Chinese citizens´ access to information. The Great Firewall is powered by a massive computer system that prevents citizens from accessing Western news websites, blogs, or any content considered a threat by the Chinese government. Additionally, it reflects the government’s attempt to maintain its monopoly on power because the less Chinese citizens know – despite many being dissatisfied with a lack of overall freedom and respect for human rights – the less likely they are to challenge the status quo.
But last week, it came to the world´s attention that China has developed a cyberweapon that will go to even greater lengths to reinforce the Great Firewall, which although limited, has holes. The latest attack by this weapon, which researchers at the Citizen Lab of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto are calling the “Great Cannon”, occurred last month. Greatfire.org, a nonprofit group outside of China that publicizes methods for circumventing censorship in the country, reported that the servers that it had rented to make blocked websites accessible in China were wrecked by Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. Within a few days, two GitHub pages run by Greatfire.org were also attacked.
The Great Cannon and the Great Firewall are related, but the former has some distinct and potentially alarming features. The Great Cannon is co-located with the Great Firewall, but it uses Web traffic unrelated to its targets to build its attack against them. The Washington Times reported that the Great Cannon is implanted as a middleman on busy commercial servers and unleashes enormous amounts of traffic on command. In the case of the latest attack, Greatfire.org´s servers were hit with 2.6 billion requests per hour, or 2,500 times normal. “Websites are not equipped to handle that kind of volume so they usually break and go offline,” Greatfire.org stated after the attack. But being pushed offline is exactly what the Chinese government aimed to achieve.
China´s latest crackdown on censorship and its tightening grip on the overall freedom of Chinese citizens is not unexpected, but remains nonetheless disturbing. If the Chinese government came down this hard on Greatfire.org, a website whose goal is neither to rebuke the government nor spread propaganda, rather to help restore a basic civil right to China´s citizens, then what or who else is on the government´s list?