Security Experts:

China Launches MitM Attack on iCloud, Hotmail Users

The Chinese government has started launching cyberattacks against Apple customers just as the company announced the availability of the latest iPhone in the country, an anti-censorship organization reported on Monday.

According to GreatFire, a non-profit that monitors online censorship in China, it appears local authorities have initiated man-in-the-middle (MitM) attacks against customers of Apple's iCloud in an effort to obtain account login credentials and gain access to the data stored by users in the cloud service.

"If users ignored the security warning and clicked through to the Apple site and entered their username and password, this information has now been compromised by the Chinese authorities. Many Apple customers use iCloud to store their personal information, including iMessages, photos and contacts," GreatFire said in a blog post. "This may also somehow be related again to images and videos of the Hong Kong protests being shared on the mainland."

The cyberattack against iCloud users coincides with the launch of the iPhone 6 in China and experts believe the attack might be related to the fact that the latest version of the device is more secure compared to previous variants.

"When details of the new iPhone were announced, we felt that perhaps that the Chinese authorities would not allow the phone to be sold on the mainland. Ironically, Apple increased the encryption aspects on the phone allegedly to prevent snooping from the NSA," GreatFire said. "However, this increased encryption would also prevent the Chinese authorities from snooping on Apple user data. It is unclear if Apple made changes to the iPhones they are selling in mainland China. However, this MITM attack may indicate that there is at least some conflict between the Chinese authorities and Apple over some of the features on the new phone."

The MitM attacks are carried out with the aid of self-signed certificates and they target users across the country. However, researchers found that only a certain IP address (23.59.94.46) is attacked, which means that not all Chinese users are affected because the iCloud DNS might return other IPs as well.

In addition to iCloud customers, the Chinese government is also reportedly using its sophisticated censorship system, the "Great Firewall of China," to target users of Microsoft's Hotmail service.

In early September, GreatFire reported that Chinese authorities had been launching MitM attacks against users who accessed Google through CERNET, a major education and research network in China. On October 1, Netresec, a network forensics and security monitoring company that assists GreatFire, reported that Yahoo had also been targeted.

 

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.