Definition: TOR

Until this year, the Internet privacy tool Tor was barely known outside the tech community. Since the revelations about the surveillance strategies of American and British spies, Tor has become a focus of criticism, accused of facilitating a dangerous “dark network” of pedophiles, drug traffickers and arms dealers.

But while the NSA has tried to hack its security, Tor’s main source of funding has been other parts of the US government. While a criminal contingent may use the site to conceal identities, its creators point to a broader group of legitimate users, including journalists, activists, law enforcement professionals, whistleblowers and businesses.

In one year, Tor grew from 500,000 daily users worldwide to over 4 million users, sparking increasing public debate along the way.

What is the TOR network?

The Tor Project is a non-profit organization that conducts research and development on online privacy and anonymity. It is designed to prevent people – including government agencies and businesses – from knowing your location or tracking your browsing habits.

Based on this research, it offers technology that bounces internet and website traffic through “relays” run by thousands of volunteers around the world, making it extremely difficult for anyone to identify the source. information or the location of the user.

Its software – the Tor Browser Pack – can be downloaded and used to take advantage of this technology, with a separate version available for Android smartphones.

There are tradeoffs: for example, browsing with Tor is slower because of these relays, and it blocks certain browser plugins like Flash and QuickTime. YouTube videos also don’t play by default, although you can use the “trial version” of YouTube’s HTML5 site to bring them back.

Who are the creators of the TOR network?

The original technology behind Tor was developed by the United States Navy and received approximately 60% of its funding from the Department of State and the Department of Defense, although its other backers have included the digital rights lobby, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, journalism and community organization Knight Foundation, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

When it launched in 2002, the Tor Project focused on protecting Internet users’ privacy against companies rather than governments.

We were increasingly concerned about all these websites – in the dotcom bubble of 2000-2001, everyone was offering free services, and by free we meant “we take all your information and sell it as many times as possible “, executive director Andrew Lewman told the Guardian in April 2012.

“We wanted to find a way to: first, put some of our research into practice and see how it would work; and second, we wanted to give control of your information to you, the user, and not to all these companies that take them by default and let you make decisions about whether you trust Google, whether you trust Amazon, whether you trust the BBC, whatever.”

Who are the users of the TOR network?

Torcyber espionage ; and users who escape censorship in certain parts of the world.

Tor notes that its technology is also used by army professionals – the US Navy is still a key user – as well as by activists and journalists in countries where media and Internet censorship is strict. The campaign organization Reporters Without Borders advises journalists to use Tor, for example.

Tor also lists bloggers, business executives, IT professionals and law enforcement officers as key users, the latter including police who must mask their IP addresses when working online under coverage or investigating “dubious websites and services“.

For more traditional users, this might mean using Tor so your children’s location can’t be identified when they’re online, or a political activist in China, Russia or Syria could protect their identity.

After the NSA surveillance revelations in 2013, a new wave of users joined the service. Between August 19 and August 27 alone, the number of people using Tor more than doubled to 2.25 million, according to Tor’s own figures, before peaking at nearly 6 million in mid-September. Since then, it has fallen to just over 4 million.

The hidden face of the TOR network

The veil of anonymity provided by Tor makes it an attractive and powerful tool for criminals. Another NSA document describes it this way: “Very bad people use Tor.”

Tor can hide users’ identities, as well as host their websites, through its “hidden services” capabilities, meaning the sites can only be accessed by people on the Tor network. This is called the “dark web” element, and it’s not uncommon to see Tor pop up in stories about a range of crime sites.

In August, a service provider called Freedom Hosting went offline after the FBI requested the extradition of a 28-year-old Irish man on charges of distributing and promoting child pornography online.

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The underground illegal drug market Silk Road, which was shut down in early October, was another hidden site only accessible through Tor, as was another store called Black Market Reloaded that was accused of facilitating illegal gun trafficking as well as purchase of drugs.

Such sites are why Tor was recently described by British MP Julian Smith as “the dark internet where child pornography, drug trafficking and the arms trade take place” during a parliamentary debate on intelligence and security services.

Mr Smith then criticized the Guardian for reporting in detail on allegations that the NSA had tried to hack Tor’s security, suggesting that “many people in the policing world think this is going to cause major problems in terms of to pick up people involved in organized crime.

Joint law enforcement operations on the TOR network

In the past, the team behind Tor has answered exactly this question, denying that the anonymity tool is an obstacle to police investigation of criminal activity.

“We work a lot with law enforcement,” Mr Lewman told the Guardian. “They are fully aware that bad guys exist on Tor. However, the criminals already have all the privacy they could possibly need, because they are willing to break laws: they are willing to steal identities, they are ready to hack machines, they are ready to operate botnets.”

People hear “Tor” and think “forget it, I’ll never solve this case”, but there really is a human being on the other end, and that’s what law enforcement is aiming for most of the time. time. Humans make mistakes, they do stupid things, they trust the wrong things, and that’s how they’ve caught almost everyone using Tor for their illegal projects.

Law enforcement in the UK has been investigating hidden services on Tor for some time before the Guardian reports. On 22 July, David Cameron gave a speech to the NSPCC, in which he spoke about plans to integrate the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center (CEOP) into the national crime agency.

“Once CEOP becomes part of the national crime agency, this will further increase its ability to investigate behind paywalls, shed light on this hidden internet and ensure that people who ‘use be prosecuted and convicted,’ Mr Cameron said. “So we need to be clear to any offender who might think otherwise, there is no safe place on the internet to access child pornography.”

In a recent blog post in response to the Freedom Hosting news, Tor also pointed out that hidden services aren’t just used by criminals, pointing the finger at organizations that use the technology to “protect dissidents, activists, and protect the anonymity of users trying to find help for suicide prevention, domestic violence, and abuse recovery.”

Is the TOR network still working?

Questions about whether the good guys and/or bad guys use Tor are one thing, but as more people become aware of it, another sensitive question is whether it works, especially in light of the NSA which develops repeated attacks against Tor. This seems to have been a frustrating task.

“We will never be able to deanonymize all Tor users all the time,” said “Tor Stinks,” a June 2012 NSA presentation. “With manual analysis, we can deanonymize a very small fraction of users of Tor, however, deanonymizing a user…on demand is not successful.

For his part, Roger Dingledine, the president of the Tor project, declared following the publication of this presentation by the Guardian that “there is no indication that they can break the Tor protocol or analyze traffic on the Tor network“, while reminding users that humans remain the weak links in online communications.

“Infecting the laptop, phone, or desktop remains the easiest way to learn about the human behind the keyboard. Tor helps again here: you can target individuals with browser exploits, but if “You attack too many users, someone is going to notice. So while the NSA aims to monitor everyone, everywhere, it needs to be much more selective about which Tor users it spies on.”

The NSA’s attacks on Tor included targeting security vulnerabilities in the Firefox web browser. Tor encourages users of its Tor Browser Pack to update regularly, to ensure they have the latest security fixes for the software.

To conclude on the TOR network

Security expert Bruce Schneier recently made anonymization tools like Tor the first step in his advice on “how to stay safe from the NSA.” But this type of technology won’t go unchallenged in the months and years to come, as attempts to hack it become smarter and more persistent.

Although Tor is likely to attract more sophisticated Internet users, public concerns about government and corporate surveillance and tracking are likely to mean that it becomes more widely used by mainstream Internet users.

“Browser exploits, large-scale surveillance and user security in general are all difficult topics for the average Internet user,” Dingledine said.

“These attacks make it clear that we, the broader Internet community, must continue to work on better security for browsers and other Internet applications.”