Augmenting Rule-based DNS Censorship Detection at Scale with Machine Learning

Jacob Brown, Xi Jiang, Van Tran, Arjun Nitin Bhagoji, Nguyen Phong Hoang, Nick Feamster, Prateek Mittal, Vinod Yegneswaran

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


The proliferation of global censorship has led to the development of a plethora of measurement platforms to monitor and expose it. Censorship of the domain name system (DNS) is a key mechanism used across different countries. It is currently detected by applying heuristics to samples of DNS queries and responses (probes) for specific destinations. These heuristics, however, are both platform-specific and have been found to be brittle when censors change their blocking behavior, necessitating a more reliable automated process for detecting censorship. In this paper, we explore how machine learning (ML) models can (1) help streamline the detection process, (2) improve the potential of using large-scale datasets for censorship detection, and (3) discover new censorship instances and blocking signatures missed by existing heuristic methods. Our study shows that supervised models, trained using expert-derived labels on instances of known anomalies and possible censorship, can learn the detection heuristics employed by different measurement platforms. More crucially, we find that unsupervised models, trained solely on uncensored instances, can identify new instances and variations of censorship missed by existing heuristics. Moreover, both methods demonstrate the capability to uncover a substantial number of new DNS blocking signatures, i.e., injected fake IP addresses overlooked by existing heuristics. These results are underpinned by an important methodological finding: comparing the outputs of models trained using the same probes but with labels arising from independent processes allows us to more reliably detect cases of censorship in the absence of ground-truth labels of censorship.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationKDD 2023 - Proceedings of the 29th ACM SIGKDD Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining
PublisherAssociation for Computing Machinery
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9798400701030
StatePublished - Aug 6 2023
Event29th ACM SIGKDD Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining, KDD 2023 - Long Beach, United States
Duration: Aug 6 2023Aug 10 2023

Publication series

NameProceedings of the ACM SIGKDD International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining


Conference29th ACM SIGKDD Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining, KDD 2023
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityLong Beach

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Software
  • Information Systems


  • censorship measurement
  • dns filtering
  • machine learning


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