How the Government Is 'Hacking' Tor (Op-Ed)

There has been a lot of news lately about various governmental police agencies compromising websites and nodes that operate on the Tor network. The reason that this is news is that few people understand exactly what the Tor network is, how it works, or how police agencies accomplish such jobs.

Tor was not originally developed as a way to prevent the government from prying into the business of citizens. Tor was originally designed and deployed as a third-generation network routing project of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. In other words, the U.S. government designed the core elements of Tor.

Tor is by no means anonymous. The capacity of government agencies to pry into our affairs is sometimes beyond belief. If they want to use cryptographic engineering, the Utah facility of the National Security Agency (NSA), for instance, uses a Cray XC30 supercomputer, which is capable of workloads of more than 100 petaflops, or 100,000 trillion calculations per second. Simply put, no server or group of servers on the planet is capable by itself of resisting a brute force attack from this agency. However, they usually use different methods.

Tor does offer users more privacy than the surface net. Developers are able to create new communication tools with built-in privacy, individuals use it to keep family and friends from tracking them, journalists use it to communicate with whistleblowers, and nongovernmental organizations use it to allow workers to connect with their home office in countries that regularly monitor internet communications. Tor is also a lot more cost-effective than private VPNs.

Both criminals and dissidents use Tor, believing that they are shielded by its advertised anonymity, and their interest attracts the interest of governments. Government police and intelligence agencies use two basic methods to penetrate the Tor network:

  1. Locating and penetrating open or insecure nodes; and
  2. Inserting agents disguised as regular users into the system.

Thomas White, an exit-node operator on Tor, was recently forced to close down his nodes after spotting this type of penetration. White lost control of all of his servers and his ISP closed his account. While this method of attack by police has been on the uptick recently, it is still dwarfed by police inserting undercover agents into the Deep Web.

The fact is that if you are engaging in any type of illegal activity on the Deep or Dark webs, there is a good chance that you will deal with either an individual uncover agent, or come up against a sting operation. Pedophile and drug rings are often brought down using this method. The Silk Road, which was brought down by a multinational task force in 2013, is a good example of this technique. Agents were able to pose as trusted customers and then somehow get access to the servers themselves.

The takeaway from this is pretty simple. If you are planning to cruise the Dark Net for illegal substances or other contraband, be warned that you could eventually be caught up in a  police net. But if you want to keep your communications private from individuals, you are probably pretty safe, at least for now. Tor is a useful tool, but like any tool, it can be poorly used by the uninformed.


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