How the Chinese Internet ended up in Cheyenne, Wyoming

January 22

The building on Pioneer Ave. that houses Sophidea, the company that received a deluge of Chinese Internet traffic Tuesday. (Google Streetview)

It's not clear how it happened, but for several hours on Tuesday thousands if not millions of Chinese Internet users were being dumped at the door of a tiny, brick-front house on 2710 Thomes Ave. two-story building on Pioneer Ave. in Cheyenne, Wyo.

The users' Internet traffic, bound initially for Chinese social networking sites and search engines, was redirected due to a mysterious error in the country's domain name system, the New York Times reports. At first, some speculated the malfunction in the traffic-routing machinery might have been a cyberattack. Others said that China's Great Firewall — the collection of human and technological censors that blocks Web sites deemed undesirable by the government — simply made a tactical error.

"Either it was an intentional DNS [domain name system] hack or the unintentional result of the Great Firewall, but I haven't seen any technical analysis of what was more likely," Adam Segal, a scholar on China and cybersecurity at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me.

The true nature of the mix-up may still be unclear, but there's a growing consensus for the latter explanation. To get around the Great Firewall, many Chinese (and expats, too) use services that route Web traffic through a foreign IP address, effectively making it look like the traffic isn't coming from inside China. One of these services, Sophidea, happens to be registered at the very address in Wyoming that bore the brunt of all that traffic.

So the prevailing theory is that in trying to block Chinese traffic going to Sophidea, the Great Firewall's operators accidentally diverted more traffic there instead. According to a Chinese anti-virus software company, the Times reports, about 75 percent of China's domain name system servers were affected by the roughly eight-hour malfunction, during which Web browsers failed to load .com, .net and .org Internet addresses.

Sophidea's former address, 2710 Thomes Ave., is a small house on a residential street a few blocks from downtown Cheyenne. The house itself is not a bit unlike the wardrobe from C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia." It may look small on the outside, but it technically housed around 2,000 corporate entities and people. A 2011 Reuters report says the place was filled with numbered mailboxes and served as the headquarters for Wyoming Corporate Services, a business that helps set up shell companies that exist only on paper.

Update: Further reporting from the Times reveals that Sophidea moved from 2710 Thomes Ave. to a new, two-story building on Pioneer Ave. last year. This story has been updated to reflect Sophidea's new location.

Late update: According to The Washington Post's own reporting, this story is much more complicated than it might initially seem. The traffic from China appears to have slammed into Web servers belonging to a U.S. software company, Dynamic Internet Technology, which has a long history of protesting Beijing.

The man who runs that firm, Bill Xia, explained that Chinese Web censors meant to block groups that rely on his technology. Instead it directed traffic to his servers, which crashed them. Other experts in the U.S. agreed with Xia's assessment. Xia, who is a practitioner of Falun Gong, has been an anti-censor advocate since he moved to the United States in the 1990s.

The Post's article raises questions about what Sophidea, the company in Cheyenne, Wyoming, has to do with the blackout in China. Web searches of the IP addresses of Sophidea and Xia's company turn up identical numbers: 65.49.2.178. It's possible that some of these Web sites do not have the latest information, or that Sophidea and Xia's company have some kind of relationship. But what appears to be yet unproven is whether all that traffic from China landed in Sophidea's lap and whether it literally went to Wyoming.

 Also from The Switch: Watch a movie with Google glasses? Get a four-hour interrogation

Related: When China censors the web -- and why

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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