A Privacy Threat for Internet Users in Internet-censoring Countries
Feno Heriniaina R.
College of Computer Science, Chongqing University, Chongqing, China
Keywords: Censorship, Human Computer Interaction, Privacy, Virtual Private Networks.
Abstract: Online surveillance has been increasingly used by different governments to control the spread of information
on the Internet. The magnitude of this activity differs widely and is based primarily on the areas that are
deemed, by the state, to be critical. Aside from the use of keywords and the complete domain name filtering
technologies, Internet censorship can sometimes even use the total blocking of IP addresses to censor content.
Despite the advances, in terms of technology used for Internet censorship, there are also different types of
circumvention tools that are available to the general public. In this paper, we report the results of our
investigation on how migrants who previously had access to the open Internet behave toward Internet
censorship when subjected to it. Four hundred and thirty-two (432) international students took part in the
study that lasted two years. We identified the most common circumvention tools that are utilized by the
foreign students in China. We investigated the usability of these tools and monitored the way in which they
are used. We identified a behaviour-based privacy threat that puts the users of circumvention tools at risk
while they live in an Internet-censoring country. We also recommend the use of a user-oriented filtering
method, which should be considered as part of the censoring system, as it enhances the performance of the
screening process and recognizes the real needs of its users.
Throughout the world, the Internet is being used in
different contexts to drive ideas, views and opinions
in virtual communities and networks. In January
2011, during the protest against the government in
Egypt, the means used for spreading ideologies such
as Twitter and Facebook were blocked, and a five-day
Internet disruption was reported. Libya also reported
instances of Internet disruption after the protests
against their government started in February 2011
(Dainotti et al., 2011). Starting in early 2014, Turkey
has blocked the IP addresses to Twitter and YouTube
after what was judged to be sensitive information by
the government had been leaked on these social
media platforms. The world has gone virtual, causing
the dependence on the Internet to grow rapidly and to
an unprecedented level. The pace of adoption of the
Internet has only been made faster by people not only
being able to read information, but also being able to
create and distribute content easily. China, being the
most populated country in the world with 1.4 billion
people as of 2015, is also first in online presence, with
more than 500 million Internet users. To preserve
state security along with social and public interest,
Internet security is pressing. The government has
used different measures including the Internet
censorships in the effort to control the access and
publication of any online content judged
inappropriate. Many local and international websites
that use those social utilities to connect with people
(i.e., social networking websites) and web tools that
provide access to the world information (i.e., search
engines, news, etc.) have been greatly affected by this
measure. A complete ban is sometimes used on
specific IP ranges when the servers are out of the
reach of local authorities’ jurisdiction.
Facebook.com has been blocked in Mainland
China since July 2008. It had over one billion active
users as of October 2012 (Rodriguez, 2013), and this
number has not stopped growing. Facebook CEO
Mark Zuckerberg, although wishing to connect the
whole world, finds China extremely complex, and he
is taking his time defining the right strategy for
dealing with it (Kincaid, 2013). Despite all that,
Facebook is still the top most used social website by
foreign students in China for catching up with their
families and friends living abroad.
After the long effort to awaken China, a once-
dormant economic giant (Zuliu and S., 1997), the
country is now among the top five world destinations
R., F.
A Privacy Threat for Internet Users in Internet-censoring Countries.
DOI: 10.5220/0005739203720379
In Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Information Systems Security and Privacy (ICISSP 2016), pages 372-379
ISBN: 978-989-758-167-0
2016 by SCITEPRESS Science and Technology Publications, Lda. All rights reserved
Table 1: List of the major technologies used by our survey respondents to go through the great firewall.
Tools name Links*
XskyWalker http://bbs.0678life.com
GoAgent http://code.google.com/p/goagent/
FreeGate http://www.dit-inc.us/freegate.html
Psiphon https://psiphon.ca/index.html
Lantern https://getlantern.org/
Uproxy https://www.uproxy.org/
Vtunnel http://vtunnel.com/
Wallhole1 http://wallhole1.com
VPN Book http://www.vpnbook.com/webproxy
StrongVpn http://www.strongvpn.com/
Astrill https://www.astrill.com/
* some of the tools listed above don’t have official websites so we have provided the links from where we can download the installation
application file.
for businessmen and students. In 2014, an estimated
37,000 international students were granted Chinese
scholarships. By 2020, China is expected to host up
to 500,000 international students (CSC., 2013). The
government is investing ardently in better facilities to
make the stay of the international students a pleasant
journey (CSC., 2015). But there is a huge gap
between the Chinese culture and the cultures of
China's neighbouring countries. This difference is
greater when it compared with the other countries
around the world. Pursuing studies in China is just a
different life event for students from outside the
Asian continent.
The Internet being a main tool for all of these
migrants, they are consistently finding ways for
accessing their desired content online. Furthermore,
there are numerous free, practical tools (e.g.,
Freegate, Goagent, Webfreer, X-Walker, etc.) and
methods available to bypass the Internet limitation
controls. Not wanting to be left without connecting
with their friends and loved ones, most international
students living in China turn to the use of these free
Although the Internet traffic might often be
exposed to potential eavesdroppers; and even though
standard encryption mechanisms cannot always
provide sufficient protection (Backes et al., 2013),
when the human desire predisposes, nothing can stop
these users from connecting with those they love. A
study by Chellappa et al., in 2005 has shown that
users are willing to trade-off their privacy concerns in
exchange for benefits such as convenience
(Spiekermann et al., 2001); (Chellappa et al., 2005).
We assume that most of the time, users of these
circumvention tools feel satisfied as long as they are
given an easy-to-use (and free) application with
access to blocked online content and moderately fast
data transfer. We also assume that few of them
actually give considerations to anonymity and
privacy risks. Identifying these as weaknesses that
could easily be exploited to become threats to their
privacy, we have started our research to learn the
users' behaviour toward censorship to prove the
veracity of our stated assumptions. In our case study,
we chose to investigate the way the international
students access Facebook from Mainland China, as
this is the most used compared to others.
Studies have looked at censorship and Internet
filtering in China (Walton, 2001), its specific
capabilities (Clayton et al., 2006) and the occurrence
of the national filtering (Xu et al., 2011). They are all
purely technical, and none has considered the user
which is a key player in the whole system. Using a
technique that combines surveys, interviews, and
investigations of user
interactions with the Chinese
Internet, we will bring some relevant insights into the
way the current circumvention tools are used. During
the process, we face several challenges. We need to
collect data from a large number of international
students in China regarding the way they cope with
the Internet censorship and ensure them that their
identity won’t be unveiled. Second, we must inspect
the different tools that are used by these international
students, in different cities, allowing us to understand
their propagation, their selection, and their usability.
The output of this research is of two folds. We learn
about the user’s choice and acceptance of a given
circumvention tool. We identify a weak spot affecting
Internet users located in Internet censoring countries.
For our implementation, we built an experimental
application that provides the open Internet and
monitor the users interactivity with it.
A Privacy Threat for Internet Users in Internet-censoring Countries
This paper does not attempt to offer a description
of the tools that work best for students in China; we
mainly focus on the availability and the driving force
that guides users in accessing different tools. This will
be the first study of its kind which attempts to
understand the way international students (migrants)
use and select different Internet circumvention tools
in an Internet censoring country.
The remaining part of this paper is organized as
follows: the second section will show the extent of the
desire for people to use the uncensored Internet.
Section three exposes the international students'
strong desire to connect with their friends on
Facebook despite Internet censorship. Given all the
conditions presented in section two and three, in
section four we introduce how an attacker can
efficiently access Facebook account information in a
simplistic and seamless manner. In section five, we
present an overview of our implementation with the
results. The last section six is left for the conclusion
and discussion.
Four years after the Internet connectivity was
officially established in 1994 in China (Yang, 2003),
the Golden Shield Project also known as the Great
Firewall of China (GFC) started and began processing
in 2003. It is a digital surveillance and censorship
network operated by the Chinese Ministry of Public
Security. In its early stage, the system in place for the
digital surveillance was not able to filter secure traffic
(Walton, 2001) Virtual private network (VPN),
secure shell (SSH), and tunneling protocols were
among the most efficient methods for circumventing
the GFC. Late in 2012, many companies providing
virtual private network services to users in China
stated that the Great Firewall has become able to
learn, discover and block the encrypted
communications. Some have noted that the Internet
service providers kill connections where a VPN is
detected (Guardian., 2011). Such, again proved that
the computing environment changes so much and
trying to stay ahead of Internet censorship is a cat and
mouse game.
Nowadays, many individuals and organizations
are joining forces and standing for a single open
Internet. One of the largest network promoting open
and anonymous Internet is Tor, available at
torproject.org (Danezis, 2011). Since the release of
the Tor Browser application to the general public, its
number of users has not stopped growing. But
although Tor should be working in China (Arma,
2014), during our testing in different locations within
two years, it never worked for us.
Goagent (https://github.com/goagent/goagent) is
another network circumvention software that is open
source and supports multiple operating systems.
Goagent was almost always working during our two-
year monitoring and testing. It is also very well
accepted by Chinese Internet users. Its only weak
point is the installation phase, which requires
tinkering that most potential users would just give up
after engaging in the first few steps.
Freegate (http://dit-inc.us/freegate.html) is
another well-reputed circumvention tool used by the
Chinese netizens. The software is very easy to use and
is among the ones that worked in circumventing the
Webfreer and XskyWalker are two software
browsers that also circumvent the GFC and are well
adopted by students. Both applications require to be
installed and were only available for Windows
operating systems. Now, the XskyWalker has been
ported to Android and is also getting much
appreciation from the users.
The list of the free circumvention tools that can be
used in China does not stop there but these are the
ones that we choose to investigate, as they were what
most international students were using on their
computers during the time of our investigations. A list
of the ten most used circumvention tools by the
international students studying in China is presented
in Table 1. 97% of our participants in the survey
introduced in the next section have been at least using
one of these circumvention tools during their stay in
China, a flagrant evidence for their needs of an open
Since the date Facebook could not be accessed freely
within Mainland China, a significant number of local
social networking websites have seen their genesis
within the local market. Despite this restriction, many
are still able to access and maintain their Facebook
accounts. What circumvention tools do they use?
How do they get hold on those tools? We take the first
step in answering the above questions. We initiate a
survey followed by an interview. We have
approached 432 international students, with at least a
high school degree, aged between 18 to 35, and all
ICISSP 2016 - 2nd International Conference on Information Systems Security and Privacy
studying for at least one semester in China. We went
door to door to make sure that each respondent is an
international student. The sample was mixed in
gender and had representatives of people from all
different continents. They were physically located in
different universities and provinces in China. All
participants were answering the questionnaire
followed with an interview to determine their
behaviour toward censorship. Because of the ever-
changing context of the Internet censorship condition,
we have had two series of surveys followed by
interviews within two years. Upon completion of the
surveys, a list of the most used circumvention tools
has emerged (Table 1).
In the meantime, in order to have a real knowledge
of the international students use of the Internet while
pursuing their studies in China, we have contacted
some foreign students and 20 allowed us to retrieve
their browsing histories for the last 200 days. These
students were not informed prior our data extraction
in order to not influence their normal daily online
activities and allow them to delete some privately
visited content. This is one of the main reasons why
it was hard for us to retrieve more data from more
users. We have cleaned and analysed the data, but
because of page limitation we just provide an
histogram of our respondents accessed websites
organized by category in figure 2 and the partitioning
of use of messaging systems used in figure 3. The
messaging system and social networking services are
the most accessed content by the international
students and Facebook takes the fist place.
Figure 2: Percentage of the online content accessed by the
international students in China organized by categories.
After a further analysis of the data we have
collected, we could identify that up to 95% of our
respondents who already used Facebook in their
home countries are still able to access and maintain
their Facebook accounts while in China. Those
students use diverse tools to access Facebook and
other censored websites.
Figure 3: A report of the messaging system and social
networking websites use by the foreign students in China.
We have grouped the used circumvention
technologies in two categories: paid and free tools.
98% of our survey respondents that are Facebook
users are using free applications and services to get
around the censorship. The data has also shown that
the international students in China have a preference
for using applications that are run or installed on their
operating systems compared to web-based services
such as www.vtunnel.com. This is mainly because
almost all the websites that provide information and
circumvention services are blocked in China. Those
who were responding to our survey, were relying on
tools that they downloaded before entering the
country or tools that their friends in the same situation
are using.
Apart from the application being free, the
international students’ choice when selecting a
circumvention tool is made based on what tools are
available, their user friendliness, their efficiency in
connecting to the world Internet, and last but not
least, their connection speed. These are the main
requirements of our respondents when selecting the
tools to use, and not even one was pertinent to
security. We consider such behaviour from these
international students to be exposing themselves to
potential threats toward their online information.
A Privacy Threat for Internet Users in Internet-censoring Countries
As the number of Facebook users does not stop
increasing, so does the amount of users’ personal
private data available in these networks. This social
networking platform has become another target of
high interest for attackers to collect data and to
engage in nefarious activities. In this paper, we
present how an attacker can exploit and access users'
Facebook account based on countries where it is
censored. As mentioned earlier, we could know that
the international students are more likely to connect
on Facebook and pass through the great firewall of
China using free tools and services. They only have
three main requirements apart from the service being
free which are availability, efficiency (speed and
connection reliability), and the tools’ user-
We have tested all the application-circumvention
tools listed in the table 1 and calculated the latency in
loading each of the 20 top websites in table 2. We
discovered that the acceptable connection speed for a
tool that can bypass the GFC and be able to maintain
its reputation while keeping users using it starts from
a modest speed of 0.41 Mbps. Among the tested tools,
none could ensure uninterrupted connection to the
world Internet. The applications which are able to
relay to the Internet with the minimum disconnection
interruptions and able to maintain a moderate speed
are the most used. The international students are also
selective for the applications that are easy in
manipulation and quick to setup during installations
Table 2: List of the top 20 sites (from alexia.com, early
When a user first accesses his Facebook account
through a proxy or when a login is done from an
uncommon location, the Facebook system might ask
him to go through some test verifications to prove
account ownership. Once the user passes the test and
is granted access to his account, the next time the
same account logs in from the same IP address
(considering that the accounts are set with Facebook’s
default security settings), it is unlikely that Facebook
will ask the user to prove again account ownership.
Based on that, the user’s trust in tools can now be
an attacker’s weapon. An attacker can setup up a
server, make client software to be run on the targeted
users’ computers, and publish to make it available to
them. The client software will set and define the
connection between the user and the server that not
only provides the open internet but also collects
whatever data that might be of value to the attacker.
In such a condition, the attacker could already use
deep packet inspection to monitor the traffic and
collect log reports (Mahmood, 2012). In further
crafting the client application, the attacker could get
access to the login and password. This method is still
effective when the user uses HTTPS during log in
because the client application could be set to extract
the credentials before they get encrypted (figure 4).
public void btn_action(View view) {
//Get user credentials
String user_login = et_login.getText().toString();
String user_password = et_pass.getText().toString();
//Retreive the credentials
SendToServer(user_login, user_password);
//Todo: Do what needs to be done with the credentials
Figure 4: Snippet for retrieving the credentials in Freer.
Despite Facebook’s efforts in maintaining a safe
and trusted environment (Facebook, 2013), such a
security threat is still hard to breakdown as it is
entirely the user’s attitude and behaviour that exposes
full control of the communication channel to the
With the raise in use of smartphones, an attacker
could also target mobile devices. Moreover, the
threat is even ardent when the official applications for
those devices don`t work and an attacker is able to
provide alternatives. Taking the case of Facebook,
without an official Facebook application that works
in countries censoring the Internet like China. Thus
an attacker can simply craft an application that
provides access to Facebook while gathering users’
data and make that application available to those in
ICISSP 2016 - 2nd International Conference on Information Systems Security and Privacy
With the tendency for youth to access their Facebook
account through mobile devices and with the
restrictions that affect Facebook users in China, they
won’t be able: to see what their friends are up to, to
share updates including photos and videos, to get
notified when friends are liking or commenting on
any of their previous posts, and to chat and engage
into group conversations within their networks. That
is a big handicap, and most of those who are already
on Facebook before entering such an internet
censored condition, instead of coping with the
situation will happily use any alternative applications
that will allow them to join the social network back
especially when there are free solutions. They would
adopt any available solutions, which are efficient
enough for what they claim to provide and even better
if they are user-friendly.
Aware of such users` tendency, an attacker, can
exploit and craft a malicious proxy that provides
Facebook access to those living in Internet-censoring
countries. In the surveys we run, we could produce a
non-exhaustive list of the circumventions tools (Table
1) used by the respondents who are all international
students in China. We have investigated these tools
especially in term of usability and we have studied
how people interact with these technologies. We
consider the following as good tasks for analyzing the
usability of each tool of these tools: installation
process, accessing a Facebook page, viewing some
photo-albums on Facebook. Our measures are
learnability, connection speed, user preference,
memorability and efficiency.
XSkyWalker and WebFreer took the lead in the
analysis results due to their ease of installation and
intuitive user interfaces very similar to the well
reputed web browser Google Chrome. XSkyWalker
was favoured as results of its clean look without
disruptive ads and the auto switch between the
connection to the local internet and the world internet
based on connection restrictions.
To simulate a malicious proxy, we developed
Freer, an application for Android devices focused on
user needs and context. Freer is a user-oriented
application, and its first installation settings have
been reduced to the minimum. For the
implementation, we:
a. Setup a proxy channel (this part is not covered in
this paper).
b. Make an Android application that mimics the
mobile version of the Facebook homepage, visible
at https://m.facebook.com
c. Add the scripts that extract the login and
password, prior to authentication of the user on
the Facebook server.
To prove that retrieving user information based on the
condition mentioned earlier is very easy to achieve,
we intentionally chose to use a simple webView (an
android view) for implementing Freer. To see its
efficiency, we made the application accessible for
downloading to our 50 volunteers.
With a Facebook user account set with the default
security settings, at this stage Freer is working
perfectly. However, Facebook has different security
settings available to the users that are: Secure
Browsing, Login Notifications, Login Approvals,
Code Generator, App Passwords, Trusted Contacts
and Recognized device. Some of these security
features, if activated, can limit the efficiency of the
Freer application.
Knowing that the user does not have other free,
effective and official alternatives for accessing what
they need, we have updated Freer to ask explicitly for
the users’ cooperation for the well functioning of the
application. For all users that are using Freer and have
Login Approvals activated, we set Freer to request
them explicitly to deactivate this security setting to
leverage its full power. In practice, as soon as we
detect that the user account has Login Approvals
activated if the user persists in using Freer without
changing this setting, we will tease him by partially
loading the content and then showing an error
requesting full permission to access the account. With
no official Facebook application that can bypass the
Great Firewall of China and give Facebook users’
connection to their loved ones, those who took part in
our experiments willingly disabled the Login
Approvals from their accounts.
Our approach is not focused on a technical way to
breach the security in place. Here we intend to prove
that the users are willing to get passed all these
security steps to get what they want.
To play on the users’ emotion and tease them, we
find it most efficient to allow them to access all
Facebook content smoothly and freely within the first
few minutes of use of Freer. If any of the two
previously mentioned security settings is enabled,
then Freer will start displaying the warning requesting
the user to disable the optional security settings.
Moreover, those who are using Android and are
residing in China have been slowly cultivated to get
past security warnings because each time they have to
install an application on their device, they always
need to "allow installation of apps from unknown
sources" for side loading.
A Privacy Threat for Internet Users in Internet-censoring Countries
User privacy is vital in online services, but it is hard
to defend against some attacks when the user is
voluntarily contributing to the breach of security as
presented in the above sections. Leakage of personal
information has often slandered people’s reputation
and many times invited spamming, stalking and other
malicious attacks. This degree is rising when it gets
to online social networks as the friends’ information
of a corrupted account is also getting exposed to the
In this paper, we have shown that it is easy to lure
users to install and use a malicious proxy application
to access Facebook in China. However, such a
scenario can be broadened to a general case where
people are using free and closed source
circumvention application to access restricted
information from the Internet.
From 2009 onwards, despite being the most used
social networking website used by foreigners for
connecting to the rest of the world, Facebook has
been banned in China. This situation forces users to
be somehow active in finding circumvention methods
and often put their privacy at risk. In our
implementation of Freer, we have shown that only the
least technical skill is needed to breach security
features offered to the users and that they even
voluntarily contribute to the well functioning of the
application as long as it helps them get what they
need. Freer has been intentionally designed in a
simplistic way to show that breaching the security of
the system could be achieved mainly with the help of
the users.
There are many entities trying to fight to connect
the world through the Internet. International
corporations should not minimize the presented threat
that users living in Internet censoring-countries are
facing. Efficient counteroffensive should be taken
into account, and further research in such orientation
should supplement this work.
Each coin has two sides and so, in our proposal
for solutions we provide three folds:
First, the corporations and entities that have their
contents restricted should support some of the
ongoing projects on providing free circumvention
tools. Also, they should support these projects in
terms of branding and awareness. In doing, the users
in need of these resources will at least be sure that
they are using official and trustworthy applications.
Second, the organizations or entities that are
developing the circumvention techniques should
focus more on providing user-friendly tools. We
could discover from our investigation that although
GoAgent is working well in China, many of the
potential users were reluctant to use it because of the
complexity of the first setup. XskyWalker in the other
hand, although using the same architecture, has
attracted more users mainly because of its simple
installation procedure.
Third, national situations and cultural traditions
differ among countries, and so apprehension about
Internet security also differs. Concerns about Internet
security of different countries should be fully
respected (Han, P., 2010). In search of a secure
common ground for cyberspace for peace while
promoting development through exchanges, Internet
users should be part of the security and should be
considered part of the system. If provided something
that will not help them in achieving their tasks, people
will always be constrained to find alternative
solutions, which might compete, and breach the
security put in place. Moreover, some third-part can
take advantage of the situation for running his
exploits. So, when building a security system, the
following should be addressed: What do the users
need to do? How often do the users need to do that?
What do you need to tell the users so that they will
make that decision? Addressing the case study, we
have considered in this paper, because the
international students mostly always find ways for
circumventing the GFC. It would be more efficient
and exploitable in term of surveillance and
monitoring to provide an openly monitored channel
to the international students. Such a channel will
allow these users to access the content they need and
at the same time will enable a better surveillance of
the network traffic.
To sum up, like great constructions designed for
the good of mankind, whether surveillance or
circumvention, tools should be designed based on the
users need and context. The complexity of a given
security measure that only considers the
technological side of the system and fails to consider
the users during the design is breaking the weakest
link in the security chain.
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