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Measuring the Accessibility of Domain Name Encryption and Its Impact on Internet Filtering

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Abstract and Figures

Most online communications rely on DNS to map domain names to their hosting IP address(es). Previous work has shown that DNS-based network interference is widespread due to the unencrypted and unauthenticated nature of the original DNS protocol. In addition to DNS, accessed domain names can also be monitored by on-path observers during the TLS handshake when the SNI extension is used. These lingering issues with exposed plaintext domain names have led to the development of a new generation of protocols that keep accessed domain names hidden. DNS-over-TLS (DoT) and DNS-over-HTTPS (DoH) hide the domain names of DNS queries, while Encrypted Server Name Indication (ESNI) encrypts the domain name in the SNI extension. We present DNEye, a measurement system built on top of a network of distributed vantage points, which we used to study the accessibility of DoT/DoH and ESNI, and to investigate whether these protocols are tampered with by network providers (e.g., for censorship). Moreover, we evaluate the efficacy of these protocols in circumventing network interference when accessing content blocked by traditional DNS manipulation. We find evidence of blocking efforts against domain name encryption technologies in several countries, including China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. At the same time, we discover that domain name encryption can help with unblocking more than 55% and 95% of censored domains in China and other countries where DNS-based filtering is heavily employed.
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Measuring the Accessibility of Domain Name
Encryption and Its Impact on Internet Filtering
Nguyen Phong Hoang,1Michalis Polychronakis,2Phillipa Gill3
1University of Chicago,
2Stony Brook University,
3Google Inc.,
Abstract. Most online communications rely on DNS to map domain
names to their hosting IP address(es). Previous work has shown that
DNS-based network interference is widespread due to the unencrypted
and unauthenticated nature of the original DNS protocol. In addition
to DNS, accessed domain names can also be monitored by on-path ob-
servers during the TLS handshake when the SNI extension is used. These
lingering issues with exposed plaintext domain names have led to the de-
velopment of a new generation of protocols that keep accessed domain
names hidden. DNS-over-TLS (DoT) and DNS-over-HTTPS (DoH) hide
the domain names of DNS queries, while Encrypted Server Name Indi-
cation (ESNI) encrypts the domain name in the SNI extension.
We present DNEye, a measurement system built on top of a network of
distributed vantage points, which we used to study the accessibility of
DoT/DoH and ESNI, and to investigate whether these protocols are tam-
pered with by network providers (e.g., for censorship). Moreover, we eval-
uate the efficacy of these protocols in circumventing network interference
when accessing content blocked by traditional DNS manipulation. We
find evidence of blocking efforts against domain name encryption tech-
nologies in several countries, including China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, we discover that domain name encryption can help
with unblocking more than 55% and 95% of censored domains in China
and other countries where DNS-based filtering is heavily employed.
Keywords: DNS ·DoTH ·ESNI ·Domain-based Network Interference
1 Introduction
Despite its importance, the domain name system (DNS) [41] was not designed
with encryption or authentication. Traditional DNS resolutions are transmitted
in plaintext, allowing network-level adversaries to easily eavesdrop or tamper
with the resolution process [29, 43, 48], jeopardizing user privacy and security.
Additionally, the domain name information is also visible in the Transport
Layer Security (TLS) protocol [47]. During the TLS handshake, the client speci-
fies the domain name in the Server Name Indication (SNI) in plaintext [17], sig-
naling a server that hosts multiple domain names (name-based virtual hosting)
arXiv:2202.00663v1 [cs.NI] 1 Feb 2022
2 NP Hoang et al.
to present the correct TLS certificate to the client. However, network observers
can also use this information to surveil or interfere with a user’s connection.
With the proliferation of network interference and Internet surveillance [25],
users have become more aware of their online security and privacy. This has
led to DNS and TLS improvements for enhancing user privacy. DNS-over-TLS
(DoT) [32], DNS-over-HTTPS (DoH) [31], and Encrypted Server Name Indica-
tion (ESNI) [23] are recently proposed privacy-enhancing protocols, to which we
refer collectively as domain name encryption technologies.
However, advances in domain name encryption technologies have not gone
unnoticed to censors. For instance, China has been blocking ESNI since July
2020 [36]. Russia has also drafted laws to ban the adoption of domain name en-
cryption [12]. Despite these reports, there has yet to be a comprehensive study to
shed light on how common blocking of domain name encryption is; and whether
domain name encryption approaches can help with evading network interference.
In this paper, we present DNEye, a measurement system built on top of a
network of vantage points, allowing us to study the accessibility of domain name
encryption technologies and whether censors are interfering with them, and to
evaluate their efficacy in bypassing network interference. Over a period of six
months, DNEye conducted 315K measurements to examine the accessibility of
1.6K domains and DoT/DoH (hereafter: DoTH) resolvers around the globe.
While our data shows that DNS manipulation is widespread, we found no
major DNS-based filtering of DoTH resolvers’ domain names at the autonomous
system (AS) level, except for, which is blocked by the Great Fire-
wall via DNS poisoning, and two Cloudflare servers ( and blocked in Thailand’s AS23969. We then examine
whether connections destined for DoTH resolvers suffer from any interference
(§4.2). We detect several ASes in China interfere with connections destined for
different DoTH resolvers. We also found only 1.5–2.25% of the domains in the
top-level domain (TLD) zone files with ESNI supported. Despite this small num-
ber of ESNI-supported domains, we find evidence that China and numerous
network operators in Russia have started blocking connections to ESNI-enabled
websites (§4.2).
Finally, we investigated whether domain name encryption can help with by-
passing Internet filtering (§4.3), and found that it can help with unblocking many
censored domains. Specifically, except from Iran, we could successfully fetch more
than 55% and 95% of the blocked domains in China and other countries where
DNS-based network filtering is widely employed.
2 Background
2.1 Common Internet Filtering Techniques
There are several Internet filtering techniques often employed by authoritarian
governments to control the free flow of information.
DNS manipulation. Due to the unencrypted design of the original DNS pro-
tocol [41], any on-path network observer can monitor the domain name being
Domain Name Encryption and Its Impact on Internet Filtering 3
queried by a user. The visibility into the plaintext domain name allows any on-
path filtering system to trivially conduct DNS-based filtering. Specifically, an
on-path observer can forge DNS responses containing non-routable IPs, an IP
under its control, or a DNS error code. China’s Great Firewall (GFW) is one
of the most prominent filtering systems that injects such forged DNS packets in
response to “sensitive” DNS queries [8, 29, 43].
IP blocking. Once a user obtains the correct IP(s) of the intended website, a
TCP connection is established with the web server for data transmission. Upon
observing a connection attempt to a forbidden IP, filtering systems often inject
RST (reset) packets to interfere with the TCP stream [11, 46, 54]. In other cases,
null routing [53] can also be used to discard traffic destined for certain IPs.
Application-level interference. After establishing the TCP connection, the
user proceeds with sending an HTTP request with the HTTP Host field specify-
ing the intended domain name. Similarly, for HTTPS-supported websites, clients
specify the intended domain name in the SNI field of the TLS handshake [17].
Filtering systems can also monitor these fields to determine the domain name
being visited to interfere with the connection, either by injecting RST packets or
modifying the HTTP traffic to redirect the user to a blockpage [35, 42, 46, 52].
2.2 Domain Name Encryption Protocols
As discussed in §2.1, the exposure of the domain information in both DNS and
TLS protocols has been widely exploited for network interference [13, 29, 46, 48].
Encrypted DNS. DoT [32] and DoH [31] were proposed to provide integrity
and confidentiality for DNS resolutions by encrypting DNS packets between
clients and DoTH resolvers. These protocols have been standardized and sup-
ported by many major Internet companies. Google [26] and Cloudflare [5] have
provided public DoTH resolvers, while popular web browsers (e.g, Firefox [39],
Chrome [9], Safari [14], and Edge [15]) have also supported DoH.
Encrypted SNI. The SNI extension [47] was introduced to enable name-based
virtual hosting. Up until TLS 1.2 [17], clients indicate their intended domain
name in the SNI field during the TLS handshake in plaintext so that the server
can present the appropriate certificate. Encrypted SNI is one of the optional
extensions of TLS 1.3 designed to conceal the domain name information [21].
ESNI has been reworked to Encrypted Client Hello (ECH) [22] since June 2020.
3DNEye Design
Given that the visibility into plaintext domain information is lost due to the
introduction of domain name encryption, we are interested in investigating how
these new protocols impact Internet filtering systems. We developed DNEye to
(1) assess the current situation of DNS-based network filtering, (2) examine
the accessibility of domain name encryption protocols and whether they are
interfered with across different network locations, and (3) evaluate whether these
4 NP Hoang et al.
1) DNS Measurements
2) DoTH/ESNI Measurements
OONI Censored Planet
3) Raw Network Captures
20.7K VPN Gate vantage points
DoTH resolvers
Fig. 1: DNEye architecture.
protocols can help with evading network interference. In this section, we first
describe how we obtain testing vantage points, their limitations, and ethical
considerations. We then explain the process by which we curate our test list of
domains and how we use DNEye to perform various connectivity measurements.
Figure 1 provides an overall view of DNEye ’s architecture.
3.1 Vantage Points
Vantage points. The core component of DNEye is a network of vantage points
(VPs) provided by VPN Gate [45]. VPN Gate is a public VPN relay service
where any volunteer can register to be a VPN endpoint by running the SoftEther
package [44]. Since these VPs are operated by volunteers around the globe,
they often reside in residential networks, allowing us to observe filtering policies
which would be usually unobservable via commercial VPNs in data centers [46].
However, since the infrastructure is volunteer-based, these VPs are often short-
lived and unsuitable for testing a long list of websites. We describe how we
account for this shortcoming by conducting a sliding-window analysis in §4.1.
Table 1 summarizes the geographical distribution of our VPs by continent and
Internet freedom scores assessed by the Freedom House [1]. During six months
of our study, VPN Gate VPs provide us with access to 34K unique IPs. We
however exclude 13.3K short-lived VPs that were online for less than one day to
eliminate unstable data points. In total, DNEye has access to about 20.7K VPs in
85 countries, with an average of 10 ASes per country. More importantly, we have
access to more than twice the number of countries classified as “not free” than
ICLab [42], which is a platform that also relies on VPN services for measuring
network interference. Of these “not free” countries, there are 11 countries where
we have access to VPs located in at least two different ASes, allowing us to
observe centralized country-level filtering policies (if any).
Ethical considerations. Measuring Internet interference using volunteer-based
VPs must be carried out in a thoughtful way that takes into consideration various
ethical aspects [34]. There are commercial services (e.g., Luminati [3]) that pro-
vide residential VPs, meeting the measurement needs of our study. Nonetheless,
studies have reported illicit activities of these services, e.g., malware hosting [40].
We, thus, opt to use VPN Gate for two primary reasons. First, to become a VPN
server, the SoftEther VPN package [44] requires all volunteers to manually go
Domain Name Encryption and Its Impact on Internet Filtering 5
Table 1: Geographical distribution of DNEye ’s VPN vantage points indicated
by the number of countries and ASes across continents. NF,PF, and Fcolumns
denote the number of politically not free,partially free, and free countries.
Continent Vantages Countries ASes NF PF F
Asia 14K 32/48 367 17 8 6
Africa 13 4/54 9 2 0 2
N. America 2.7K 6/23 157 0 1 3
S. America 811 9/14 58 1 4 4
Europe 2.8K 32/50 271 2 3 27
Oceania 282 2/ 6 16 0 0 2
Total 20.7K 85/195 878 22 16 44
through a process that reminds them about the associated risks of joining the
VPN Gate research network [6]. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect volunteers,
who are willing to be VPN endpoints, to fully understand the potential risks
before agreeing to share their network connection. Moreover, the University of
Tsukuba and the VPN Gate software also record access logs which serve as
an anti-abuse policy used by the project and to assist its volunteers in case of
disputes [49]. Since the launch of DNEye we have not received any complaints.
3.2 Test List
While it is desirable to test many domains, due to the short-lived nature of VPs,
we cannot test a large number of domains. OONI [24], ICLab [42], and Censored
Planet [52] are measurement platforms actively monitoring Internet interference
around the globe. Since these platforms have implemented testing modules to
monitor DNS filtering, we opt to use their collected data as an input for DNEye.
We first look for domains reported as censored by these platforms within the
past 30 days and visit them to confirm their online status. We consider domains
that are censored in at least two ASes per country and reported by at least
two platforms. This helps eliminate unreliable data points that could have been
caused by generic network errors. To that end, we obtain 1.5K domains that are
commonly reported as censored by these prior platforms in 77 countries where we
have VPs. Since one of our main goals is to examine the accessibility of domain
name encryption protocols, we also add domains for 71 DoTH resolvers publicly
available at the time of our study [19]. These resolvers are indexed in Table 4.
3.3 Measurements
Once connected to a VP, we instruct DNEye to capture all network traffic during
each measurement. Monitoring traffic transmitted over the VPN tunnel enables
us to observe network interference (if any) across all layers of the network stack.
Measuring DNS manipulation. After each VPN tunnel is established, DNEye
first issues DNS queries for the domains in our test list. This allows us to not
6 NP Hoang et al.
only obtain an updated view of DNS filtering across network locations, but
also determine whether there are any filtering systems that block these DoTH
resolvers via DNS tampering. DNEye sends DNS queries to both public DNS
resolvers (e.g., Google and Cloudflare) and the local DNS resolver configured by
each VP’s network provider. Querying both types of resolvers helps us discern
whether DNS tampering (if any) is conducted solely by the local resolver or by
an on-path system between our clients and the selected public resolvers.
Measuring DoTH and ESNI connectivity. DNEye then uses kdig [18] to
send encrypted DNS queries to 71 DoTH resolvers to resolve a control domain for
which we know the correct answer. This test checks whether each DoTH server
returns the control domain’s correct IP. The ability to capture network packets
allows us to detect at which stage of a connection (i.e., TCP or TLS handshakes)
a filtering system tampered with the connection destined for the selected DoTH
servers. In addition, to determine whether ESNI is blocked, DNEye also attempts
to connect to an ESNI-supported website under our control.
Measuring filtering circumvention. Finally, to evaluate whether domain
name encryption can help evade Internet filtering, DNEye instruments a cus-
tomized web browser with DoH and ESNI enabled to crawl filtered domains
from VPs where DNS filtering of these domains was observed in the first step.
However, as later shown in §4.2, many DoTH resolvers are being blocked in
several countries. To prevent any filtering system from interfering with our DoH
resolutions, we configure the crawler to use our private DoH resolver, which runs
on a non-standard port (i.e., different from 443) and is hosted in an uncensored
network. For an ESNI-supported website, the crawler will also obtain its ESNI
key and establish an ESNI-enabled TLS connection. Simultaneously, we crawl
the same website from an uncensored control environment for later comparison.
Between November 12, 2020, and May 12, 2021, DNEye has conducted 315K
connectivity measurements for 1.6K domains and DoTH resolvers in 878 ASes
across 85 countries. The aggregated dataset will be made available to the public
to stimulate future studies in this domain at
publication/publication 2022 pam/.
4 Results
4.1 DNS-based Network Interference
To identify DNS tampering, we apply well-established heuristics in the literature
on the data collected by DNEye (Appendix B). For each DNS query sent via a VP,
we extract all DNS responses captured from that VP’s network traffic. In case
of a poisoned DNS response, the ability to analyze raw network packets allows
us to discern whether it was injected by an on-path filtering system or directly
served from the local DNS resolver. Specifically, if the tampering is conducted
by an on-path filtering system when querying a public DNS resolver, we will be
able to observe more than one DNS response, of which the one arrives the VP
Domain Name Encryption and Its Impact on Internet Filtering 7
first is usually forged by the filtering system [20, 29]. In case of a forged response
served directly from a local resolver, we will only observe that one response.
Sliding-window analysis. Due to the short-lived nature of our VPs, we do
not have access to all VPs on the same day. To reduce the impact of unreliable
data points, we analyze the data by considering a sliding window of seven days
for each measurement. In other words, for each domain tested in a measurement,
we aggregate the data we have from the same VP within a window of ±3 days.
Meanwhile, we also compute the average filtering rate (i.e., the number of mea-
surements we mark as “tampering” divided by the total measurements for each
VP and domain pair). If the filtering rate of a domain at a VP is higher than
80%, we consider that domain as “blocked” at that VP in that particular mea-
surement. We conservatively choose the 80% threshold to avoid false positives
caused by generic network errors instead of network interference.
Table 2: Top five countries where most DNS resolutions are tampered with.
(a) When querying local resolvers
Country Domains
China 305
Russia 251
Japan 181
Iran 159
Indonesia 135
(b) When querying public resolvers
Country Domains
China 300
Russia 205
Iran 147
Indonesia 134
India 98
Regardless of the introduction of DNS encryption protocols, our results con-
firm that DNS manipulation is still widely employed, aligning with prior re-
ports [29, 33, 42, 48, 52]. Table 2 presents the top five countries where most
DNS resolutions are tampered with. Japan is not a censorship country, as is
evident by its “free” classification by the Freedom House [1]. The reason for
the high number of DNS resolutions interfered by local DNS resolvers is that
VPN Gate is a Japan-based project, thus providing us with a large number of
VPs from many residential networks across Japan. Our collected data indicates
that many of these VPs are configured with filtering services provided by local
DNS resolvers. Hence, queries sent to these resolvers are often interfered with.
More specifically, many DNS responses returned by these local DNS resolvers
contain IPs redirecting to destinations within the same AS of the VPs where
DNS queries were issued. On the other hand, we could still obtain the correct
DNS records for our DNS resolutions when querying public resolvers from these
same VPs. As a result, this is not a case of country-level DNS censorship.
DNS manipulation of DoTH domains. As laid out in §3.3, DNEye also
performs DNS resolutions for domain names of 71 DoTH resolvers to determine
whether there is any DNS tampering against these resolvers. Except for China,
we did not observe any DNS-based filtering of DoTH domain names at coun-
try level. Specifically, is blocked in China by the GFW via DNS
tampering. In addition, DNEye detected DNS tampering against two Cloudflare
8 NP Hoang et al.
servers (, by AS23969 TOT Pub-
lic Company Ltd, Thailand. DNS resolutions for these two domains are poisoned
with a forged IP (i.e.,, pointing to a blockpage.
4.2 DoTH and ESNI Accessibility
DoTH accessibility. Since DoTH is still in its early stage of adoption while
not all DoTH servers are well-provisioned, any of them may become unavailable
during our measurement, e.g., due to maintenance. To determine if a resolver
is unavailable due to a generic reason rather than network interference, we ag-
gregate all daily resolutions from all VPs for that particular resolver. If more
than 70% of the queries were successfully resolved, we consider that resolver as
available on that day. We choose 70% as a conservative threshold to prevent
intermittently available resolvers from causing false positives in our analysis.
Figures 2a and 2b show the percentages of correct resolutions performed daily
using DoT and DoH resolvers, respectively. We consider a resolution as correct
when the correct IP of our control domain is successfully returned. The result
is clustered by country type defined by the Freedom House [1]. The percentages
of correct resolutions obtained via VPs in “not free” countries are lower than
those in “partially free” and “free” countries. To better highlight this finding,
we add to both plots another dash-dot (purple) line, computed from data of the
top five “not free” countries that have the most number of failed resolutions,
namely China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. It is visible on the
plots that the number of successful resolutions for these five countries has de-
creased significantly since March. This decrease is driven by the blocking effort
of China, where our system detected an increase in network interference with
our DoTH resolutions issued from China VPs. In an earlier study, Lu et al. [38]
reported successful rates of more than 84% and 99% for resolutions using Cloud-
flare and Quad9 DoT resolvers, respectively. However, since early March, DNEye
has detected increasing network interference efforts by the GFW against DoT
resolutions destined for several major resolvers, including Cloudflare, Quad9, Ad-
Guard, and CleanBrowsing. Our findings corroborate several anecdotal reports
from users in China about DoTH blocking around that same time [4].
DoTH filtering. To examine how filtering systems interfere with connections
destined for DoTH resolvers, we analyze packets captured by DNEye for mea-
surements in which failed resolutions were observed. The ability to process raw
network packets allows us to pinpoint the stage at which a connection was in-
terfered with, thus being able to identify the employed filtering technique (i.e.,
TCP packet injection, SNI-based filtering, or packet dropping).
We employ the same sliding-window technique defined in §4.1 to determine
blocking cases of DoTH resolvers. Given a VP, an average failure rate of a DoTH
resolver is calculated by dividing the number of failed resolutions by the total
number of resolutions performed at that VP within a seven-day window. If the
failure rate exceeds 80%, we label the DoTH resolver as “probably blocked” at
that VP. To determine whether a DoTH resolver is actually blocked at a VP, we
Domain Name Encryption and Its Impact on Internet Filtering 9
Percentage of correct resolutions
Free Partly Free Not Free Top 5
(a) Resolutions using DoT
Percentage of correct resolutions
Free Partly Free Not Free Top 5
(b) Resolutions using DoH
Fig. 2: Percentage of correct DoTH resolutions over time.
then compute the 90th percentile value of all failure rates for that DoTH resolver
at that particular VP. If the value is greater than 80%, we can be confident that
there is network interference with connections destined for that resolver at that
VP. We employ this 90th percentile threshold in combination with the sliding-
window analysis to account for failed resolutions caused by sporadically available
VPs and unstable DoTH resolvers rather than actual network interference.
Next, we consider a DoTH resolver to be blocked by an AS if DNEye detects
network interference from at least two VPs from different subnets of that AS
on two separate days. Table 5 in Appendix C depicts the top countries where
most AS-level DoTH filtering was detected. China has the most number of ASes
that interfere with DoTH connections. The filtering of different DoTH resolvers
detected at different ASes indicates that DoTH filtering is implemented by indi-
vidual Internet service providers rather than a centralized policy (e.g., centralized
DNS-based filtering by the GFW [29]).
Another advantage provided by the VPN Gate VPs is that having access to
multiple ASes per country allows DNEye to identify cases of country-level filter-
ing where multiple ASes interfere with the same domains. For instance, DNEye
detects SNI-based network interference against the same set of DoH resolvers
across different ASes in Saudi Arabia, indicating a centralized filtering policy.
In Iran, we also observe filtering of multiple DoTH resolvers. Notably, SNI-
based filtering of TLS connections, destined for both DoT and DoH servers of, were detected from several subnets of AS58224. This same filtering
was also detected at AS39501 and AS56402, which are not considered in Table 5
since we did not have VPs from more than one subnet in these two ASes.
Filtering of some DoTH resolvers was also detected in the US, South Korea,
and Singapore (Table 5). However, upon verifying the organization information
of the filtering ASes, we find that these are filtering cases implemented by cor-
porate and institutional firewalls instead of a country-wide filtering policy.
ESNI adoption. For ESNI to provide any meaningful privacy and filtering
resistance benefits, it needs to be supported by many websites, since if there are
10 NP Hoang et al.
only a few ESNI-supported websites, connections to their servers are trivially
distinguishable [27, 28]. Therefore, we first measure the adoption of ESNI on
the web by looking up the ESNI TXT record for more than 350M domains from
TLD zone files [2].
Over the course of our measurement period, we find that only about 1.5–
2.25% of domains from TLD zone files have a valid ESNI key format (see Ap-
pendix D). Of these ESNI-supported domains, 15.4K and 143.3K domains are
within the top 100K and 1M popular domains ranked by the Tranco list [37],
respectively. We have also measured the deployment of Encrypted Client Hello
(ECH) by probing for HTTPS resource records [22] but did not find any evidence
of ECH deployment in the wild.
ESNI filtering. As described in §3.3, DNEye also measures the filtering of
ESNI by visiting our control website that has ESNI enabled. This website will
reflect the visiting client’s IP if the client can successfully connect to our server.
Employing the same sliding-window technique defined in §4.1 in combination
with the 90th percentile threshold described above, we detect ESNI filtering in
China, Russia, and Iran.
Following a TLS client hello whose SNI field is encrypted, we observe RST
packets being injected by China’s GFW to tear down connections destined for
our ESNI-supported web server. This observation aligns with previous anecdotal
reports that China has started filtering all ESNI traffic since July 2020 [36].
Unlike the centralized ESNI filtering policy of China, Internet service providers
in Russia are known to implement blocking mechanisms independently in a de-
centralized manner [50]. Among the networks where we have VPs in Russia, we
detect ESNI filtering in AS28890, AS52207, and AS41754, where RST packets
are injected to disrupt ESNI connections to our website.
DNEye has also detected ESNI filtering from VPs in Iran’s AS56402, AS31549,
and AS16322. However, since we did not have measurements from more than one
subnet in each of these ASes, we cannot conclude these cases as AS-level filtering
with high confidence.
4.3 Network Filtering Circumvention
For the top five countries where most on-path DNS tampering was detected,
Table 3 summarizes the number of domains that we (1) could fetch by employing
domain name encryption, thus evading network filtering, and (2) could not fetch
due to other filtering mechanisms at multiple layers of the network stack.
Note that we focus our analysis on those domains tampered with by on-path
filtering systems (i.e., Table 2b), rather than those blocked by local resolvers.
This is because, instead of using domain name encryption, simply changing to a
public resolver is already sufficient to evade filtering employed by a local resolver
for some domains. This is the reason why DNEye observes fewer filtered domains
when querying public resolvers (Table 2b) compared to local resolvers (Table 2a).
Except for Iran, we could successfully unblock more than 50% and 95% of
filtered domains in China and other countries, respectively, where on-path DNS
filtering is heavily employed.
Domain Name Encryption and Its Impact on Internet Filtering 11
Table 3: Number of domains that could evade filtering as a result of domain name
encryption employment. The filtering technique column indicates the number of
domains that fail to evade filtering due to other filtering techniques (i.e., TCP
packet injection), HTTP-only site, SNI-based filtering of domains without ESNI
support, and server-side blocking.
Country Circumvented/Total crawled Filtering technique
China 130/230 11 2 84 3
Russia 53/56 1 1 1 0
Iran 0/49 1 1 47 0
Indonesia 93/98 2 2 0 1
India 20/20 0 0 0 0
There are three reasons why some domains fail to evade filtering. First, filter-
ing systems can have several mechanisms deployed at different network layers,
as discussed in §2.1. Thus, domain name encryption alone is not enough to cope
with other filtering mechanisms. Second, a few domains are still serving HTTP
sites only, allowing straightforward network interference. The third reason, which
is also the main one, is because many domains do not support ESNI (see Ap-
pendix D). Domain name information of websites without ESNI support is still
visible via the TLS handshake and thus susceptible to SNI-based filtering.
Note that DNS-based and SNI-based filtering modules of China’s GFW have
been shown to maintain different blocklists. Some domains, therefore, are filtered
via DNS tampering but not SNI-based interference [46]. There are three domains
that we could evade filtering in China but experience server-side blocking.
5 Related Work
The adoption trend of domain name encryption technologies by major Internet
companies in the last couple of years has prompted several measurement studies
to examine how these new technologies are treated by Internet filtering systems.
Basso [10] created a testing module to detect the blocking of DoTH services
for the OONI probe [24]. The author analyzed one-month data of measurements
for 123 DoTH resolvers conducted by OONI volunteers at three separate ASes
in Kazakhstan, Iran, and China, finding that the most frequently blocked DoTH
resolvers belong to Cloudflare and Google. While this study presents some pre-
liminary insight into DoTH filtering, DNEye conducts comprehensive measure-
ments from more VPs at many network locations over an extended period of
time, providing a more complete view of how filtering systems are treating do-
main name encryption technologies around the globe. Specifically, the extensive
and continuous measurements conducted by DNEye have enabled us to discover
exactly when a major filtering system like the Great Firewall started blocking a
domain name encryption protocol (§4.2).
12 NP Hoang et al.
Jin et al. [33] conducted a one-off measurement to examine whether DoTH
resolvers perform any DNS tampering themselves. Our system, DNEye, is de-
signed to also detect on-path filtering systems that interfere with connections
destined to DoTH servers. The authors also examined whether encrypted DNS
can help with bypassing Internet filtering by using commercial VPNs running
in data centers for testing. However, this has several drawbacks, including VPN
locations being falsified [55] and limited visibility into residential networks that
often have different filtering policies [46]. The paper concludes that the effective-
ness of encrypted DNS in evading network interference varies by country.
Chai et al. [13] study the adoption of ESNI and whether it can help bypass
Internet filtering in China. They found that 10.9% of the Alexa top 1M domains
supported ESNI in 2018. By enabling ESNI in their web crawler, the authors
could unblock 66 websites filtered by the GFW based on SNI [13]. Unfortunately,
that has not gone unnoticed to China’s filtering systems. From July 2020, the
GFW has been reported to block all ESNI traffic [36]. Our work complements
this earlier work by verifying the support of ESNI for all domains from TLD zone
files, finding an increase to almost 15% of top 1M popular domains supporting
ESNI (§4.2).
6 Discussion
From a technical perspective, it is obvious that domain name encryption tech-
nologies can help to improve security and privacy for Internet users. Our mea-
surements, however, show mixed results when it comes to the resilience of these
technologies to Internet filtering. Specifically, while we found that encrypting
DNS resolutions could help evade DNS-based filtering for many domains, al-
most half of the domains filtered in China and all domains filtered in Iran could
not evade filtering despite the use of DoH (§4.3). This is primarily because the
vast majority of domains on the Internet do not have ESNI supported.
As a result, unless ESNI is universally deployed, DNS encryption alone is
not enough to resist Internet filtering. Moreover, filtering systems in China and
Russia have been blocking ESNI traffic because the collateral damage of this
blocking is not substantial enough, since only a small fraction of domains on
the Internet have ESNI supported. Even when more websites support ESNI,
they should be co-hosted instead of being hosted on separate IPs to increase
the potential collateral damage (if being blocked) [30] and to avoid IP-based
blocking [27, 28].
Another issue with DoTH is the chicken-and-egg problem of resolving the
domains of DoTH resolvers. Specifically, the domain of a DoTH resolver would
still need to be first resolved via an unencrypted DNS resolution. Although we
did not observe any major DNS-based filtering against the domains of DoTH
resolvers, the blocking cases of and two Cloudflare DoH resolvers
in §4.1 show that this is a critical problem in the current implementation of
most DoTH resolvers. Although a client can instead use a fixed IP of a DoTH
resolver (e.g., or, this setting is then susceptible to IP-based
Domain Name Encryption and Its Impact on Internet Filtering 13
blocking unless the DoTH resolver’s identity is obfuscated similarly to our own
DoH resolver in §3.3. There have been studies demonstrating the possibility of
using machine learning models to detect and filter encrypted DNS resolutions
based on network traffic signatures [7, 16], we however did not experience such
blocking efforts. This is evident by the fact that we could still use our private
DoH resolver in all countries where we have measurement vantage points.
7 Limitations
Prior work has shown that an advanced Internet filtering system such as the
GFW could block hundreds of thousands of domains [29]. Although it is desirable
to test as many domains as possible to obtain a more general view about the
filtering mechanisms used against various types of domains, we could not test
a large number of domains due to the short-lived nature of VPN Gate vantage
points (§3.2). Another limitation of using VPN Gate is that VPN endpoints
often rewrite the packet header, taking away the capability of using incremental
IP time-to-live values to pinpoint the location of filtering devices.
8 Conclusion
We present DNEye, a measurement system built on top of a distributed network
of vantage points, to examine the accessibility of domain name encryption tech-
nologies and whether they are interfered with by filtering systems across different
network locations. Over a six-month period, DNEye conducted 315K measure-
ments from more than 20K vantage points in 85 countries, detecting blocking
efforts against domain name encryption technologies in several countries, includ-
ing China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.
Measuring the prevalence of ESNI adoption, we find that only 1.5–2.25% of
the domains from TLD zone files have a valid ESNI key, indicating that ESNI has
not been widely adopted yet. Finally, to evaluate the efficacy of domain name
encryption in evading Internet filtering, we instrument a customized browser
with DoH and ESNI enabled to crawl a list of filtered domains detected by
DNEye. Except for network locations where SNI-based filtering is also employed,
we could unblock more than 55% and 95% of the blocked domains in China and
other countries where DNS-based filtering is employed.
We would like to thank our shepherd, Gareth Tyson, and the anonymous re-
viewers for their thorough feedback on earlier drafts of this paper. This research
was supported in part by the Open Technology Fund under an Information Con-
trols Fellowship. The opinions in this paper are those of the authors and do not
necessarily reflect the opinions of the sponsor.
14 NP Hoang et al.
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A DoTH Resolvers
Table 4 indexes 71 DoTH resolvers publicly available at the time of our study.
B DNS Tampering Detection
To identify cases of DNS-based network interference, we employ the following
well-established consistency heuristics in the literature [24, 42, 48, 51].
Multiple responses with different ASes. We receive multiple responses for
a DNS query that belong to different ASes. Previous studies have identified cases
where on-path filtering systems inject packets carrying false IP addresses that
often are publicly routable [8, 29, 43].
NXDomain or non-routable address. We receive an NXDomain or non-
routable IP in response to a DNS query from a vantage point while receiving a
routable address from the majority of vantage points and our control node.
Different responses from control and aggregate. When a vantage point
receives a globally routable IP but different from the IP observed at the control
node. We first check whether they belong to the same AS. If both IPs are under
the same AS, this is due to the use of CDN and/or DNS-based load balancing
but not censorship. If the IP observed by the vantage point belongs to an AS
16 NP Hoang et al.
Table 4: The list of DoTH resolvers that is used in our measurement.
Index DoTH Servers Index DoTH Servers Index DoTH Servers
1 25 49
2 26 50
3 27 51
4 28 52
5 29 53
6 30 54
7 31 55
8 32 56
9 33 57
10 34 58
11 35 59
12 36 60 (DoT)
13 37 61 (DoT)
14 38 doh.familyshield.op 62 (DoT)
15 39 63 (DoT)
16 40 64 (DoT)
17 41 65 (DoT)
18 42 66 (DoT)
19 43 67 (DoT)
20 44 68 (DoT)
21 45 69 (DoT)
22 46 70 (DoT)
23 47 71 (DoT)
24 48
which is different from the response AS we observe at the control node and the
majority of other vantage points, this behavior indicates DNS interference by
a filtering system that aims to redirect the client to a different server (e.g., for
displaying blockpages). However, there are also cases in which different ASes
are managed by large CDN providers (e.g., Akamai). We look up organization
information of those ASes to exclude cases where different response ASes belong
to the same organization to avoid false positives.
C AS-level DoTH Filtering
Table 5 shows the top five countries where most connections to DoTH resolvers
were interfered with. The DoTH server names are indexed in Table 4.
D ESNI Prevalence
Over the course of our measurement period, we frequently query for ESNI TXT
records of more than 350M domains from TLD zone files [2]. Only 3%–4.5% of
domains respond to our ESNI TXT queries. And, only 48–51% of these TXT
records have a valid ESNI key format defined in the Internet drafts [21, 23].
Analyzing the key lengths of all ESNI TXT records obtained, we find that the
majority of them have 92 characters. These ESNI-supported domains are hosted
by Cloudflare, which is the only Internet company supporting ESNI to the best of
our knowledge. For domains whose ESNI TXT records that do not have a correct
ESNI key format, we find that their authoritative nameservers are configured
with a wildcard setup (i.e., *, thus responding to our ESNI TXT
query for despite not having an actual ESNI key. To that
end, only around 1.5%–2.25% of domains on the Internet have ESNI supported.
Domain Name Encryption and Its Impact on Internet Filtering 17
Table 5: Top five countries where most AS-level DoTH filtering was detected.
* indicate cases where both TCP and TLS handshakes were completed but we
could not obtain the correct IP of our control domain being resolved.
Country China United States S. Korea Singapore Saudi Arabia Iran
Index of blocked DoH resolvers
1 X X X X X X
2 X X X X X
4 X
5 X
6 X X
9 X X
10 X X
11 X
13 X
14 X X
16 X X
19 X X
20 X X
22 X
23 X X
25 X
26 X X
27 X
28 X X
32 X
33 X X X
34 X X
37 X X
38 X X X X X X X X X X X
39 X X
40 X X X X
41 X X X
42 X X
44 X X X X X X X X X X X X
45 X X X X
47 X X X X
48 X X
50 X X X X X
51 X X
54 X X X
55 X X X X X X X
59 X X X X X
Index of blocked DoT resolvers
60 X X X
61 X X
62 X X
63 X X
64 X
65 X X
66 X X
67 X X
68 X X
69 X X
70 X X X
71 X X
Block TCP 98.3 97.8 44.8 4.8 95.3 96.2 0* 100 0* 0* 100 0* 100 0* 50 0* 0 0 0 10
(%) TLS 1.7 2.2 55.2 95.2 4.7 3.8 0* 0 0* 0* 0 0* 0 0* 50 0* 100 100 100 90
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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