How Great is the Great Firewall? Measuring China's DNS Censorship


Nguyen Phong Hoang, Stony Brook University and Citizen Lab, University of Toronto; Arian Akhavan Niaki, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Jakub Dalek, Jeffrey Knockel, and Pellaeon Lin, Citizen Lab, University of Toronto; Bill Marczak, Citizen Lab, University of Toronto, and University of California, Berkeley; Masashi Crete-Nishihata, Citizen Lab, University of Toronto; Phillipa Gill, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Michalis Polychronakis, Stony Brook University


The DNS filtering apparatus of China's Great Firewall (GFW) has evolved considerably over the past two decades. However, most prior studies of China's DNS filtering were performed over short time periods, leading to unnoticed changes in the GFW's behavior. In this study, we introduce GFWatch, a large-scale, longitudinal measurement platform capable of testing hundreds of millions of domains daily, enabling continuous monitoring of the GFW's DNS filtering behavior.

We present the results of running GFWatch over a nine-month period, during which we tested an average of 411M domains per day and detected a total of 311K domains censored by GFW's DNS filter. To the best of our knowledge, this is the largest number of domains tested and censored domains discovered in the literature. We further reverse engineer regular expressions used by the GFW and find 41K innocuous domains that match these filters, resulting in overblocking of their content. We also observe bogus IPv6 and globally routable IPv4 addresses injected by the GFW, including addresses owned by US companies, such as Facebook, Dropbox, and Twitter.

Using data from GFWatch, we studied the impact of GFW blocking on the global DNS system. We found 77K censored domains with DNS resource records polluted in popular public DNS resolvers, such as Google and Cloudflare. Finally, we propose strategies to detect poisoned responses that can (1) sanitize poisoned DNS records from the cache of public DNS resolvers, and (2) assist in the development of circumvention tools to bypass the GFW's DNS censorship.

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@inproceedings {274650,
author = {Nguyen Phong Hoang and Arian Akhavan Niaki and Jakub Dalek and Jeffrey Knockel and Pellaeon Lin and Bill Marczak and Masashi Crete-Nishihata and Phillipa Gill and Michalis Polychronakis},
title = {How Great is the Great Firewall? Measuring China{\textquoteright}s {DNS} Censorship},
booktitle = {30th USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 21)},
year = {2021},
isbn = {978-1-939133-24-3},
pages = {3381--3398},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug

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