Front: NSA's attempt to crack web privacy tool used by dissidents is revealed: Agency believes criminals use Tor to hide identities GCHQ says system is used by 'very naughty people'
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) The US National Security Agency has tried repeatedly to develop attacks against people who use Tor, a popular tool designed to protect online anonymity, even though the software is primarily funded and promoted by the US government itself.
Top-secret NSA documents, disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, reveal the agency's current successes against Tor rely on identifying users and attacking vulnerable software on their computers. One technique targeted the Firefox web browser used with Tor, giving the agency full control over targets' computers.
But the documents suggest the fundamental security of Tor remains intact. One top-secret presentation, titled Tor Stinks, states: "We will never be able to de-anonymise all Tor users all the time.".
Another top-secret presentation calls Tor "the king of high-secure, low-latency internet anonymity".
Tor - which stands for The Onion Router - is an open-source public project that bounces users' internet traffic through several computers, called "relays" or "nodes", to keep it anonymous and avoid online censorship tools. It is relied upon by journalists, activists and campaigners in the US and Europe as well as in China, Iran and Syria, to maintain the privacy of their communications and avoid reprisals from government. It receives 60% of its funding from the US government, primarily the state department and department of defence - which houses the NSA.
Despite Tor's importance to dissidents and human rights organisations, however, the NSA and its UK counterpart, GCHQ, have devoted considerable efforts to attacking the service, which law enforcement agencies say is also used by people engaged in terrorism, the trade of child abuse images, and online drug dealing.
Privacy and human rights groups have been concerned about the security of Tor following revelations in the Guardian, New York Times and ProPublica about widespread NSA efforts to undermine privacy and security software.
While it seems the NSA has not compromised the core security of the Tor software or network, the documents detail proof-of-concept attacks, including several relying on the large-scale online surveillance systems maintained by the NSA and GCHQ through internet cable taps.
One such technique is based on trying to spot patterns in the signals entering and leaving the Tor network, to try to de-anonymise its users. However, one presentation stated that the success of this technique was "negligible" because the NSA has "access to very few nodes".
Other efforts mounted by the agencies include attempting to direct traffic toward NSA-operated servers, or attacking other software used by Tor users.
Such efforts to target or undermine Tor are likely to raise legal and policy concerns. The NSA's own documents acknowledge Tor's wide use in countries where there is routine surveillance or censorship of the internet. One presentation notes that it can be used for "circumvention of nation state internet policies" - and is used by "dissidents" in "Iran, China, etc". GCHQ documents show a disparaging attitude towards Tor users. One presentation reads: "Very naughty people use Tor".
The technique developed by the NSA to attack Tor users through vulnerable software on their computers is codenamed EgotisticalGiraffe, the documents show. Its use was detailed in a top-secret presentation titled "Peeling back the layers of Tor with EgotisticalGiraffe". Under this approach, the NSA does not attack Tor directly. Rather, targets are identified then the NSA attacks their browsers.
In a statement, the NSA said: "In carrying out its mission, NSA collects only those communications that it is authorised by law to collect. It should hardly be surprising that our intelligence agencies seek ways to counteract targets' use of technologies to hide their communications. Throughout history, nations have used various methods to protect secrets, and today terrorists, cybercriminals, human traffickers and others use technology to hide their activities. Our intelligence community would not be doing its job if we did not try to counter that."
Tor, which was targeted by the NSA, is used in Syria, Iran and China to keep communications private and avoid reprisals
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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