China Extends Media Blocking as Hong Kong Protests Swell

China has stepped up its operations to block conventional and social media coverage of the ongoing civil protest activities in Hong Kong.

According to some sources, the disruption now includes sophisticated cyber-warfare tactics designed to attack the smart phones of protesters.

Access from within China to the portal pages of the Hong Kong and Taiwan versions of Yahoo has been blocked. So too has access to some pages of English-language Hong Kong newspaper The South China Morning Post.

Earlier in the week, the SCMP removed its paywall from its online coverage of the protests. As a result it enjoyed record levels of traffic, but suffered repeated periods of unavailability.

Leading Chinese language social media service Weibo has seen a record number of postings removed by government censors – over 150 takedowns per 10,000 posts – according to monitoring service Greatfire.org.

Search terms that have been largely blocked online in China include ‘Hong Kong,’ ‘Occupy Central’ and ‘umbrella.’ The protests in Hong Kong have quickly been dubbed the ‘umbrella revolution’ as protesters have used umbrellas to fend off fierce sunshine, heavy rain and pepper spray used by police in attempts to disperse the gatherings. A number of SCMP reporters have also had their Weibo accounts closed.

The new disruptions are in addition to China’s blockage of access to Instagram which began on Sunday.

The pro-democracy street protests, which combine the politically-led Occupy Central activities, as well as separate, student-led anti-government actions, began in earnest during the weekend. Despite torrential overnight rain, they expanded further on Wednesday, a public holiday to celebrate China’s 65th anniversary.

The blockage of Yahoo is unusual and sophisticated, as it appears to use a form of disruption known as a “man in the middle” attack. Normally, connections with Yahoo are encrypted. But the man in the middle tactic involves putting an attacking server in between users and the target company’s servers. That makes the connections unencrypted and liable either to snooping or to blocking of specific pages. Yahoo email services appear to operate normally in China, but its photo sharing service Flickr is blocked.

Tech website Mashable and anonymous spokesmen from Greatfire say that such a powerful form of attack can only be organized at government level.

Mobile security company Lacoon, has also detected rare cross-platform malware attacks that act on Android and Apple smart phones. The malware, named Xsser mRAT comes in the form of an application that appears to help protesters organize and coordinate their activities. It was sent to Occupy Central protesters on Thursday as an anonymous message sent to Whatsapp users, Lacoon reported in a blog posting

“The fact that this attack is being used against protesters and is being executed by Chinese-speaking attackers suggests it’s linked to Chinese government cyber activity,” Lacoon said.

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