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Anti-Censorship Activists in China Are Under ‘Aggressive’ Cyber Attack

The attack on some anti-blocking sites is "an exhibition of censorship by brute force."

by Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai
Mar 19 2015, 8:16pm

A well known anti-Chinese censorship group is withstanding an unprecedented and aggressive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on all its websites, in an apparent attempt to knock them offline.

GreatF​ire, a group that tracks Chinese online censorship and maintains a series of censorship-resistant websites that mirror other popular sites that are blocked in China, says it's the worst DDoS attack—a common strategy by which a malicious party overloads a site with bogus traffic —in its history.

It's unclear who's behind the attack, as finding the culprits of a DDoS, by the attacks own distributed nature, is almost always impossible.

"This kind of attack is aggressive and is an exhibition of censorship by brute force," Charlie Smith, one of the members of GreatFire, wrote in a blog p​ost. "Attackers resort to tactics like this when they are left with no other options."

The attack started on March 17, following the publication of a Wall ​Street Journal story that featured GreatFire and explained how the group uses a strategy known as "collateral freedom" to mirror sites that are blocked in China.

All of GreatFire's mirrors, according to Smith, are getting 2.6 billion requests per hour, 2,500 times more than the usual traffic they get. And, apparently, it's getting worse.

"[The attack] is ongoing!" Smith told Motherboard. "Still happening with us and intensifying."

Despite the massive attack, Smith says they made "an adjustment" that is keeping the content of the mirror sites available inside of China, though Smith added he could not be more specific. Some of th​e sites targeted are the mirrors of the New York Times, the BBC, and that of Free​Weibo, GreatFire's uncensored version of the popular social network Weibo.

"This kind of attack is aggressive and is an exhibition of censorship by brute force."

Yet, this attack has cost GreatFire $30,000 in additional bandwidth for its subscription to AWS, AWS, Amazon's service that allows users to host sites in the cloud, according to Smith.

"We need companies like Amazon to be on our side and, more importantly, on the side of freedom of speech," Smith wrote, asking supporters to tell Amazon to forgo the bills in the name of free speech.

Despite the timing of the attack, and the fact that the Chinese government has targeted them in the past, including recently cal​ling GreatFire an "anti-China website set up by an overseas anti-China organization," Smith did not want to point any fingers.

"We do not know who is behind these attacks and we are not pointing any fingers at the moment," Smith told Motherboard.