In 2014, Domain Fronting became the newest obfuscation technique for covert, difficult to censor communication. Even today, the Meek Pluggable transport serves ~400GB of Tor traffic each day, at a cost of ~$3000/month.
The basic technique is to make an HTTPS connection to the CDN directly, and then once the encryption has begun, make the HTTP request to the actual backing site instead. Since many CDNs use the same “front-end cache” servers for incoming requests to all of the different sites they host, there is a disconnect between the software handling SSL, and the routing web server proxying requests to where they need to go.
Even as the technique became widely adopted in 2014-2015, its demise was already predicted, with practitioners in the censorship circumvention community focused on how long it could be made to last until the next mechanism was found. This prediction rested on two points:
- The CDN companies will find themselves in a difficult position politically, since they are now in the position of supporting circumvention while also maintaining a relationship with the censoring countries.
- The technique has security and cost implications that make it not great for either the CDNs, or the practitioners.
We’ve seen both of these predictions mature.
Cloudflare, explicitly doesn’t support this mechanism of circumvention, and coincidentally has major Chinese partnerships and worked to deploy into China. Google also has limited the technique over periods as they have struggled with abuse (although mute in China, since the Google cloud doesn’t work there as a CDN.)
In terms of cost, the most notable incident is the “Great Cannon”, which targeted not only Github as widely reported, but also caused a significant amount of traffic to go to Amazon-hosted pages run by GreatFire, a dissident news organization, and costing them significant amounts of money. GreatFire had been providing a free browser that operated by proxying all traffic through domain-fronting. Due to a separate and less reported Chinese “DDOS” they ended up with a monthly bill for several tens of thousands of dollars and had to turn down the service.
The latest strike against domain fronting is seen in posts by Cobalt Strike and FireEye that the technique is also gaining adoption for Malware C&C. This abuse case will further incentivize CDNs from allowing the practice to continue, since there will now be many legitimate western voices actively calling on them to stop. Enterprises attempting to track threats on their networks, and CDN customers wanting to not be blamed for attacks will both begin putting more pressure on the CDNs to remove the ability for different domains to be intermixed, and we should expect to see a continued drop in the willingness of providers to offer such a service.