In December 2013, Harvard University was rocked by a bomb threat. As the threat threw the campus into a state of chaos, local law enforcement and the FBI went to work, catching the culprit in under two days. The perpetrator in question was actually a student, sophomore Eldo Kim, who had attempted to use the bomb threat to, of all things, get out of taking his final exams.1
Foregoing the obvious jokes about how ridiculously over the top this student’s plan was and about Ivy League schools, still leave interesting facts to reveal. Eldo Kim had taken some basic precautions to not be detected as the bomb threat maker, using a famous and highly touted free privacy service called Tor, short for The Onion Router, which is supposed to guarantee complete anonymity when it is used, along with a brand new temporary email, but to no avail. His mistake? Connecting to Tor on the campus WiFi! Investigators determined the bomb threats had come through Tor, and conducted a search on the university network for anyone using Tor at the same time the threats were sent. Only one name came up – Eldo Kim. His use of Tor made him stand out like a “glow stick”.2 Kim was tripped up by that, not by Tor failing, but it did lead to some questions about the reliability of Tor’s protective capabilities. Is Tor truly anonymous, and safe to use?
Tor works by basically creating an alternate path to wherever you are logging onto the internet. It prevents identification of your computer IP address by relaying and bouncing your commands around thousands of servers, run by volunteers around the world.3 It is somewhat akin to someone trying to shake a suspected pursuer by taking an indirect route to their destination in real life. In fact, with Tor, you get access to the vast majority of the internet you probably did not even know existed. Only an estimated 10% of the internet is actually indexed and visible (making it accessible to everyone), while 90% is out of sight, similar to an iceberg.
Tor takes you to the Deep Web, which is different from the Dark Web. The Dark Web – containing everything from black markets like the infamous Silk Road to assassination groups like the Hitman Network – is the illegal subset of the Deep Web. The Deep Web is everything that is unindexed, meaning it does not come up on in searches using basic search engines, like Google or MetaCrawler. There can be overlap between the two, but this is not always the case. Basically, to navigate anywhere in the Deep Web, you highly desire to remain anonymous, hence the use of Tor, and you need to know the web address of wherever it is you want to go since you cannot simply search for it. The sites accessed through Tor, end in dot onion (.onion), not dot com, .org, or any other common ending. The .onion, and the name of the application, come from the idea that using Tor is like peeling back the layers of an onion – there is always another one under the surface, layers within layers, to protect your identity.4
While there are definitely some illicit places in the Deep Web, such as the aforementioned two sites and other illegal and exploitative child porn sites, there can also be warranted uses for it as well. Using Tor, whistle-blowers can post things to places, including areas like Wikileaks or the CIA’s website, without worrying about their identity going public.5 Human rights journalists can publish reports, oppressed people under strict authoritarian governments can access news sites, business owners can hide trade secrets, and people stranded in war zones can conceal their location. The trade-off for security is speed however, as the process of routing your requests around the world and hiding your identity takes time, so it tends to be much slower than a regular internet connection. However, while Tor can help hide your IP address, it is not foolproof.6
The U.S. Government, for example, has ways to decloak certain Tor users. In 2013, when whistleblower Edward Snowden released hundreds of secret documents from NSA, he included one that revealed the NSA was able to unmask 24 Tor users over one weekend, one of which was an Al-Qaeda operative.7 The NSA, however, is only able to target individual users – despite their efforts to reveal users en masse, including by trying to track users by microscopic differences in the internal time of the computers clocks – but that is not necessarily the case for other government agencies.8 The FBI, though, has remained quiet about its capability to break through Tor’s anonymity. In a court case against a man busted for sharing child pornography on Tor, the judge presiding over the case ordered the FBI to reveal how they had discovered the suspect’s true identity. The FBI refused, and dropped all charges rather than revealing how they did it. From the Tech Times, who was reporting on the case: “The FBI used ‘network investigative techniques’ to reveal users’ real identities despite Tor’s efforts, but in court it refused to comply with a request for information regarding its techniques. Rather than divulging its methods, the FBI preferred to see all charges dropped.”9
In addition, attempts to find new ways to crack Tor constantly make progress. In 2015, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University scheduled a talk at the Black Hat hacking Conference (one of the two most famous meetups for hackers and internet security, along with Def Con). The Carnegie Mellon presentation promised to reveal the IP addresses and real users on Tor by using a $3,000 piece of equipment. While the talk was abruptly canceled at the last minute, it is extremely likely the FBI and Department of Defense have access to that technique as well. The very next year, in 2016, a federal judge confirmed that the FBI and DOD had hired researchers and software engineers from Carnegie Mellon University to help them break into Tor.10 That does not necessarily mean that the US Government is using their ability to target Tor users in a bad way – they have used that ability to shut down numerous illicit sites on the Dark Web, such as the Silk Road – but it is definitely something that potential users need to be aware of, especially those who are using Tor to protect their privacy.
Other issues with Tor include the fact that Tor popularized itself as a way to hide your identity from “Big Brother” and from the government, but was actually founded by the Navy and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Tor also is funded in large part by the US government, including the Pentagon, the US Department of State, a CIA branch organization, and others. This is because these agencies have a vested interest in keeping Tor afloat. As the co-founder of Tor, Roger Dingledine, said in a speech “they think of it as security technology. They need these technologies so that they can research people they’re interested in, so that they can have anonymous tip lines, so that they can buy things from people without other countries figuring out what they are buying, how much they are buying and where it is going, that sort of thing.” Later in his speech, he doubled down, saying “The United States government can’t simply run an anonymity system for everybody and then use it [for] themselves only. Because then every time a connection came from it people would say, “Oh, it’s another CIA agent looking at my website,” if those are the only people using the network. So you need to have other people using the network so they blend together.”11 Even more worrisome is the fact that Tor has backdoor routes of communication with the FBI and other agencies. A journalist did some digging using the Freedom Of Information Act, and found Roger Dingledine had been communicating with the Department of Justice and the FBI about vulnerabilities they had found, and talking about installing backdoors into Tor.12 Below is a picture of some of their messages with some redacted parts.
There are, however, ways to further enhance the security and anonymity of using Tor. While Tor itself remains so far untraceable, barring some stupid mistakes by users who set it up improperly, all the known ways of breaking Tor’s cloak of secrecy revolve around finding you by looking at was done before and after using Tor, and matching them up. Using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to conceal your IP address even before logging into Tor works wonders for foiling that method. While many VPNs do still log what goes on while using them, there are a few that have been proven as “no leak VPNs” by court cases and investigations, and those, when used in conjunction with Tor, work very well. In addition, running Tor through The Amnesiac Incognito Live System (also known as TAILS), adds an extra layer of security. TAILS boots your computer from a flash drive, from which you access Tor. This allows you to simply remove the flash drive from your computer to instantly remove any traces of your history from your computer. While not foolproof, this does help add extra safety.
While many people, especially in the privacy and internet security circles, swear by Tor, it is not without its cons. There are bad people using it and bad places that can be accessed through Tor, but it is also a safe haven for those who are in danger and need a place to hide, or for whatever reason cannot access the internet directly, for fear of surveillance. Is Tor foolproof? No. If a nation-state, especially one of the so-called “Five Eyes”, the USA, UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, who are in a tightly knit cyber security alliance, really wanted to, they could detect an individual with some effort.13 Other countries that are involved in the lesser extensions of the Five Eyes, the Nine Eyes and the Fourteen Eyes, might be able to as well, though it is not guaranteed. What Tor can do, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is make a user safer. It will protect against your local and average hackers, and, even if it fails to conceal your identity, certainly makes it harder on those trying to find you. A way of thinking about it is “Tor is good, but not perfect”. Added security steps like TAILS and VPNs only make using Tor safer, and while Tor is not quite as invulnerable as it is often touted to be, it is still the best option for anyone in need of safety and anonymity.
The Onion Router
Howdy. I’m Stephen Talik, a native Texan born in College Station, and an Eagle Scout. I find history – especially the World Wars, Cold War, and the espionage world – fascinating. I also enjoy learning about the newest and coolest gadgets for technological use and internet security, and watching sports. I have also interned in the Washington D.C. office of a member of Congress, and I am a Political Science Senior at St. Mary’s University.Author Portfolio Page