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.
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.
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.
Security expert Bruce Schneier has a mind bogglingly deep technical discussion of the NSA’s Tor-skirting attempts in another Guardian article if you’re interested in nitty-gritty details.
Even so, Snowden’s documents seem to indicate that Tor’s core security is intact, at least for now.
“The good news is that they went for a browser exploit, meaning there’s no indication they can break the Tor protocol or do traffic analysis on the Tor network,” Tor president Roger Dingledine told The Guardian. “Infecting the laptop, phone, or desktop is still the easiest way to learn about the human behind the keyboard.”
Tor also can’t help you stay anonymous if you’re running around the Net and filling out web forms willy-nilly, or if you’re using certain browser plugins. Our tutorial to how (and why) to surf the web in secret has all the details.