TLS attacks and anti-censorship hacks

Despite safeguards in TLS 1.3, China is still censoring HTTPS communications, according to a new report. There are workarounds to this. Plus, how TLS can be used as an attack vector.

A censorship label is splashed across an image of a man hiding behind his laptop.
Xesai / Getty Images

The Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol emerged as a focal point of attention for the information security world during August as the Chinese government updated its censorship tool, the Great Firewall of China, to block HTTPS traffic with the latest TLS version. The topic got even more attention when security researchers offered workarounds to TLS-enabled censorship and demonstrated potential TLS-based attacks at DEF CON: Safe Mode.

TLS is a widely adopted protocol that enables privacy and data security for internet communications, mostly by encrypting communications between web applications and servers. TLS 1.3, the most recent version, was published in 2018. TLS is the foundation of the more familiar HTTPS technology and hides communications from uninvited third parties, even as it does not necessarily hide the identity of the users communicating.

TLS 1.3 introduced something called encrypted server name indication (ESNI), which makes it difficult for third parties, such as nation-states, to censor HTTPS communications. In early August, three organizations — iYouPort, the University of Maryland and the Great Firewall Report — issued a joint report about the apparent blocking of TLS connections with the ESNI extension in China.

Using a simple Python program, the group discovered that the Great Firewall blocks ESNI connections from client to server and temporarily bans the IP addresses involved. The organizations say they have been able to find circumvention techniques that can be used either in apps or software or on the server side to thwart China’s censorship blocks, but they consider these solutions temporary.

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