The folks at Tor (aka "the onion router," which you can download over here) must be doing something right.
In an NSA presentation leaked to the Guardian, the high-level spy agency laments that "Tor stinks." (That, in fact, was the title of the presentation.) You can see the slides over here and a more technical analysis by Bruce Schneier, about how the NSA tried to "crack" Tor, over here. A few sample paragraphs:
The very feature that makes Tor a powerful anonymity service, and the fact that all Tor users look alike on the internet, makes it easy to differentiate Tor users from other web users. On the other hand, the anonymity provided by Tor makes it impossible for the NSA to know who the user is, or whether or not the user is in the US.
After identifying an individual Tor user on the internet, the NSA uses its network of secret internet servers to redirect those users to another set of secret internet servers, with the codename FoxAcid, to infect the user's computer. FoxAcid is an NSA system designed to act as a matchmaker between potential targets and attacks developed by the NSA, giving the agency opportunity to launch prepared attacks against their systems.
Once the computer is successfully attacked, it secretly calls back to a FoxAcid server, which then performs additional attacks on the target computer to ensure that it remains compromised long-term, and continues to provide eavesdropping information back to the NSA.
Among IT security professionals, it has been long understood that the public disclosure of vulnerabilities is the only consistent way to improve security... Given how inept the NSA was at protecting its own secrets, it's extremely unlikely that Edward Snowden was the first sysadmin contractor to walk out the door with a boatload of them. And the previous leakers could have easily been working for a foreign government. But it wouldn't take a rogue NSA employee; researchers or hackers could discover any of these backdoors on their own.
This isn't hypothetical. We already know of government-mandated backdoors being used by criminals in Greece, Italy, and elsewhere. We know China is actively engaging in cyber-espionage worldwide. A recent Economist article called it "akin to a government secretly commanding lockmakers to make their products easier to pick – and to do so amid an epidemic of burglary."
This news, along with the announcement that the FBI has taken down the Tor-dependent Silk Road, reintroduces a conversation you can enjoy while drinking with friends this weekend: The obscurity of the "dark web" can be of tremendous, large-scale social benefit (for activists living under repressive regimes, for example) but also carries serious consequences (child pornographers and arms dealers have used it).
But the NSA mostly seems petulant and aggressive about it ("Tor stinks") because it's difficult for them to penetrate and surveil—as if they presume the right to overhear every bit of communication that happens anywhere and at any time. Tor, and the way the NSA has attacked it, really force the question of the limits of liberty (or whether we have any to begin with) into the open.
I wrote Jacob Appelbaum, a key Tor developer who lives in Seattle, for his reaction to today's news.
In the meantime, what do you think?
Should government agencies aggressively attack every forum, such as Tor, in which a conversation is happening that they can't overhear, just in case something sinister is being discussed?