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China Blamed for MITM Attack on Outlook

A leading rights group is again calling on technology giants including Apple, Microsoft and others to revoke trust for China’s certificate authority CCNC, after claiming that the authorities were responsible for a major Man in the Middle (MITM) attack on Outlook users over the weekend.

The attack, which lasted for about a day, targeted IMAP and SMTP for Outlook using a self-signed certificate, as per previous similar attacks against iCloud, Google and Yahoo, according to anti-censorship organization Greatfire.org.

However, this attack was aimed mainly at mobile users, who are more likely to click ‘continue’ if presented with a ‘cannot verify server identity’ warning message, as they might think it’s the result of a network problem, co-founder Charlie Smith explained via email.

Greatfire.org is once again pinning the attack on CCNC’s ruling body, the Cyberspace Administration of China – whose head, Lu Wei, reports directly into president Xi Jinping.

“This attack comes within a month of the complete blocking of Gmail (which is still entirely inaccessible). Because of the similarity between this attack and recent MITM attacks in China (on Google, Yahoo and Apple), we once again suspect that Lu Wei and the Cyberspace Administration of China have orchestrated this attack or have willingly allowed the attack to happen,” Greatfire explained in a blog post.

“If our accusation is correct, this new attack signals that the Chinese authorities are intent on further cracking down on communication methods that they cannot readily monitor.”

Like the other services which were hit with MITM attacks recently, Outlook uses HTTPS, meaning a cyber-attack like this is one of the few options available to China to intercept or block communications.

Greatfire.org believes the authorities are currently testing their MITM capabilities, which accounts for the relatively short duration of the attack.

“The authorities may also be gauging user response. By keeping track of how many users ignore the certificate warnings, the authorities will be able to determine the effectiveness of this type of attack,” it added.

“We strongly recommend that users never bypass certificate error messages by clicking ‘continue’.”

Although Apple supremo Tim Cook flew to China for high level talks in Beijing following the iCloud MITM there has been no official response from Cupertino on what the outcome was.

Beijing’s line on cyber attacks has been consistent: to voice its strong opposition to any form of hacking and claim that it is a victim, not a perpetrator, of such attacks.

However, that stance was undermined recently when it emerged that police in Zhejiang province procured a $24,000 mobile trojan to spy on smartphone users in the region.

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