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China Telecom answers US internet routing hijack claims by joining internet routing security team: How do you like them apples?

Mind your MANRS as politics meets network security

China Telecom has joined the global routing security group MANRS, just as America's communications regulator decided to formally investigate whether the company was a national security threat.

“The Mutually Agreed Norms for Routing Security (MANRS) officially accepted China Telecom as a participant in the network operator program, announcing that three of China Telecom's major networks have met its community-led routing security standards,” reads the announcement.

The big reveal appears to be both a response to the US government’s position – which has been engaged in an anti-China campaign during the Trump administration – and a test of the MANRS body, which was set up to fix routing errors and yet risks being dragged into global politics.

Phones showing US flag and Huawei logo

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China Telecom has been repeatedly cited by network operators as a source of routing errors, most notably in June 2019 when 70,000 BGP routes were leaked from Swiss colocation company Safe Host to China Telecom in Frankfurt, Germany, which then announced them on the global internet. That resulted in a massive rerouting of internet traffic from European cellular networks to China Telecom-controlled boxes, disrupting connectivity for more than two hours.

The US government, and FCC, have seemingly decided those routing errors are the result of interference from the Chinese government, possibly an effort to spy on internet traffic, and so a direct threat to America’s national security. Network engineers are less convinced and have repeatedly noted they could be no more than operator error.

Error or hack?

Routing errors are commonplace and typically the result of network misconfiguration, though engineers have also been concerned in recent years at what they suspect is state-level efforts at network manipulation.

By joining MANRS, China Telecom is creating a counter narrative to the aggressive anti-China position taken by the Trump Administration, which has banned Huawei and ZTE from its 5G networks and exerted significant political pressure on other governments to do the same, with some success.

Concern over China Telecom’s routing errors have even stretched across the aisle. While the current Republican majority at the FCC can be relied upon to reflect back the Trump administration’s beliefs and positions, in the recent decision to investigate China Telecom, Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks put out a statement [PDF] in support.

China Telecom Americas has misrouted large amounts of communications from the United States for many years

In it, he noted: “National security agencies say that China Telecom Americas has misrouted large amounts of communications from the United States for many years, including at least ten incidents, sometimes involving US government traffic.

“Moreover, when the company sought authority to operate in the United States, it made certain commitments to our national security agencies. I believe the evidence demonstrating that China Telecom Americas, however, has repeatedly violated those commitments. For example, China Telecom Americas has failed to respond in an accurate and timely manner to Team Telecom requests for information and made inaccurate statements about its cybersecurity practices and its handling of US customer records.”

However, its membership of MANRS may provide China Telecom with evidence – backed by a respected independent body interested only in network security – that it is actively resolving its routing issues, and so undercut the claims of state-level spying.

Already decided

Amazingly, Starks highlighted that the US government will ignore any such evidence. In his statement, he noted: “According to the national security agencies, there are no mitigation measures that would make them comfortable with China Telecom Americas’ continued operation in the United States.”

It should be noted that there is no evidence that has been made public, or even referred to, of China Telecom spying. The argument put forward by the US government is that by being based in China the company is subject to government pressure and therefore it should be assumed that it will end up spying for its Beijing masters.

Road at night image via Shutterstock

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While the timing of its membership of MANRS and the FCC’s decision to move forward with investigating China Telecom doesn't look coincidental, it is worth noting that when The Register spoke with a key member of the MANRS group – the Internet Society's senior director for technology programs, Andrei Robachevsky – back in March and asked about China Telecom, he told us that the company has already approached it.

“In fact, they reached out to us,” Robachevsky said, noting that it seemed genuinely interested in working with MANRS to fix its issues.

MANRS pushes four main approaches to greater routing security, two technical and two cultural: filtering, anti-spoofing, and then coordination and validation. Combined, they help weed out bad routing information and so reduce the ability to carry out attacks.

The group was originally set up on a voluntary basis – anybody that agreed to join would work together to improve network security – though earlier this year it recognized that peer pressure alone wasn’t going to be sufficient and built out its own metrics engine that identified which companies were causing the most problems.

Every new member that joins MANRS is given an audit check, however, Robachevsky told us that it may need to expand that to occasional spot-checks to ensure that organizations remain compliant with the group's standards.

With China Telecom now signed up as an MANRS member and the US government using its routing errors as justification for banning it from the United States entirely, the group may well find itself under an unwelcome spotlight in the coming months. ®

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