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Tor stands strong against the NSA, but your browser can bring you down

Brad Chacos | Oct. 7, 2013
The good news: The NSA appears unable to crack the Tor network's core security. The bad news: That doesn't matter if your browser isn't secure.

Another day, another revelation revealed by Edward Snowden's leaks. Friday, The Guardian reported that the U.S. NSA and its British equivalent, the GCHQ, have been actively trying to defeat the encrypted protection provided by the popular Tor anonymity software.

But amazingly, it appears the attempts have failed. The latest Snowden leak suggests that Tor has actually withstood the brunt of the NSA's efforts thus far.

"We will never be able to de-anonymize all Tor users all the time," according to a leaked presentation titled Tor Stinks,' the Guardian reports. "With manual analysis, we can de-anonymize a very small fraction of Tor users."

That doesn't mean Tor is a magic bullet for cloaking your online steps, however.

Sneaking in through the side door
It's no surprise that the NSA is targeting Tor. Have you seen the depravity that goes on down there in the Tor-enabled Darknet, the hidden underbelly of the web? The billion-dollar Silk Road drug bazaar was just the tip of the iceberg, and the anonymization software can also make communication easier for criminals.


You could buy anything at the Silk Road before its recent shutdown-crack, meth, forged IDs, assassins, computer-hacking services, you name it.

Yes, Tor is also a haven for whistleblowers and political dissidents, but it's the government's job to stop bad guys from doing bad things, remember—and cracking Tor can help them do that.

Along those lines, the NSA has managed to identify some Tor traffic, but doing so involved taking advantages of vulnerabilities in the Firefox browser included with the Tor Browser Bundle, rather than compromising the Tor network itself. The NSA infected browsers with rogue code via a "honey pot" website designed to only attack people using the Tor network, though The Guardian says Firefox 17 plugged the particular hole the authorities were using.

Earlier this year, the FBI seized control of the servers of the largest Darknet website-hosting service, and infected them with malware that "phoned home" with the distinct MAC address of users who visited the hosting service's sites. Again, the identification method relied on software vulnerabilities. Tor quickly updated the Tor Browser Bundle to a more recent version of Firefox, and disabled JavaScript by default to squash the exploit.

While the NSA and GCHQ haven't breached the Tor network directly, they're trying. The Guardian reports that the duo is dabbling in proof-of-concept attacks that entail mass surveillance of the Tor network, or a mixture of tapping core Internet cables while simultaneously controlling a large number of Tor's "exit nodes," which deliver unencrypted requests to website servers.

 

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