Clayton, Murdoch, and Watson have an interesting new paper describing technical mechanisms that the Great Firewall of China uses to block online access to content the Chinese government doesn’t like.
The Great Firewall works in two parts. One part inspects data packets that cross the border between China and the rest of the world, looking for “bad” content. The other part tries to shut down cross-border connections that have contained “bad” content. I’ll focus here on the shutdown part.
The shutdown part attacks the TCP protocol, which is used (among many other things) to transfer Web pages and email. TCP allows two computers on the Net to establish a virtual “connection” and then send data over that connection. The technical specification for TCP says that either of the two computers can send a so-called Reset packet, which informs the computer on the other end that some unspecified error has occurred so the connection should be shut down immediately.
The Great Firewall tries to sever TCP connections by forging Reset packets. Each endpoint machine is sent a series of Reset packets purporting to come from the other machine (but really coming from the Great Firewall). The endpoints usually respond by shutting down the connection. If they try to connect again, they’ll get more forged Reset packets, and so on.
This trick of forging Reset packets has been used by denial-of-service attackers in the past, and there are well-known defenses against it that have been built into popular networking software. However, these defenses generally don’t work against an attacker who can see legitimate traffic between the target machines, as the Great Firewall can.
What the Great Firewall is doing, really, is launching a targeted denial of service attack on both ends of the connection. If I visit a Chinese website and access certain content, the Great Firewall will send denial of service packets to a machine in China, which probably doesn’t violate Chinese law. But it will also send denial of service packets to my machine, here in the United States. Which would seem to implicate U.S. law.
The relevant U.S. statute is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (18 U.S.C. 1030), which makes it an offense to “knowingly cause the transmission of a program, information, code, or command, and as a result of such conduct, intentionally cause damage without authorization, to a protected computer”, as long as certain other conditions are met (about which more below). Unpacking this, and noting that any computer that can communicate with China will meet the definition of “protected computer”, the only part of this requirement that requires any discussion is “damage”. The statute defines “damage” as “any impairment to the integrity or availability of data, a program, a system, or information”, so that the unavailability to me of the information on the Chinese website I tried to visit would count as damage.
But the offense has another requirement, which is intended to ensure that it is serious enough to merit legal attention. The offense must also cause, or attempt to cause, one of the following types of harm:
(i) loss to 1 or more persons during any 1-year period (and, for purposes of an investigation, prosecution, or other proceeding brought by the United States only, loss resulting from a related course of conduct affecting 1 or more other protected computers) aggregating at least $5,000 in value;
(ii) the modification or impairment, or potential modification or impairment, of the medical examination, diagnosis, treatment, or care of 1 or more individuals;
(iii) physical injury to any person;
(iv) a threat to public health or safety; or
(v) damage affecting a computer system used by or for a government entity in furtherance of the administration of justice, national defense, or national security;
This probably wouldn’t apply to an attack on my computer, but attacks on certain U.S. government entities would trigger part (v), and there is a decent argument that the aggregate effect of such attacks on U.S. persons could add up to more than $5000 in damage, which would trigger part (i). I don’t know whether this argument would succeed. And I’m not a lawyer, so I’m relying on real lawyers to correct me in the comments if I’m missing something here.
But even if the Great Firewall doesn’t violate U.S. law now, the law could be changed so that it did. A law banning the sending of forged packets to the U.S. with intent to deny availability of content lawful in the U.S., would put the Great Firewall on the wrong side of U.S. law. And it would do so without reaching across the border to regulate how the Chinese government interacts with its citizens. If we can’t stop the Chinese government from censoring their own citizens’ access to the Net, maybe we can stop them from launching denial of service attacks against us.
(link via Bruce Schneier)