The US National Security Agency is working to undermine the security of Tor, the open-source internet anonymity tool, using targeted Firefox hacks and keyloggers in a – so-far believed to be unsuccessful – attempt to peel open the clandestine system. Leaked NSA documents, including presentations titled “Tor Stinks”, were among the cache of information leaked by PRISM whistleblower Edward Snowden, the Guardian reports, and detail attempts made by the NSA – and GCHQ, the agency’s counterpart in the UK – to crack what’s described as “the king of high-secure, low-latency internet anonymity.”
Tor – or “The Onion Router” – hides location and other information about web traffic by shuttling data between multiple “nodes” in different locations. That obfuscates the origin, giving it particular appeal to journalists, activists, and legitimate campaigners hoping to operate under the attentions of restrictive regimes, but also to terrorists and others hoping to avoid law-enforcement services.
In fact, Tor is part-funded by the US itself, with around 60-percent of its cash coming from the US government, particularly the State Department and the NSA-operating Department of Defense.
That has, ironically, left the NSA attempting to circumvent security systems it itself is effectively paying for. If there’s any upside currently for the NSA, it’s probably that it’s getting its money’s worth from the Tor Project: in one NSA presentation, the agency admitted that “we will never be able to de-anonymize all Tor users all the time.”
Moreover, while “with manual analysis we can de-anonymize a very small fraction of Tor users” the NSA claims, it nonetheless admits it has had “no success de-anonymizing a user in response [to specific requests.]”
As a result, the NSA and GCHQ have apparently turned to more roundabout ways to get inside Tor traffic, picking off the end-points rather than – as might normally be the case – by tapping the data en-route through undersea cable monitoring or other techniques. In one top-secret presentation titled “Peeling Back the Layers of Tor with EgotisticalGiraffe”, a technique for compromising the Firefox browser and thus logging data before it even made it onto the Tor network was described, the Guardian reports; however, it relied upon a loophole in an older version of the Mozilla software, which was patched in November 2012 and, as of the document’s creation in January 2013, had not been re-opened by the NSA.
The NSA itself has declined to comment specifically on the leaked documents, though in a more general statement suggested that it was only natural that it attempt to crack tools that might be used for terrorism and other nefarious purposes.
“In carrying out its signals intelligence mission, NSA collects only those communications that it is authorized by law to collect for valid foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence purposes, regardless of the technical means used by those targets or the means by which they may attempt to conceal their communications” the agency said. “NSA has unmatched technical capabilities to accomplish its lawful mission.”
“As such, 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 their 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.”