How Tor’s Dark Web Is Getting Darker Thanks to Spies

It’s no secret that U.S. and British security agencies are trying to crack the Tor network, which has been one of the beacons of hope consumers have against prying eyes. Even Vladimir Putin has put up a 3.9 million rubles (about $110,000) bounty “to study the possibility of obtaining technical information on users and users’ equipment of Tor anonymous network,” according to a post on the government’s website. But apparently attempts to breach the “dark web” have been undermined by the very people trying to stop it.

Head of Tor Project’s operations, Andrew Lewman has claimed some agents working within the NSA (U.S.) and GCHQ (U.K.) are leaking where the holes are in the network. These tips have helped the organization fix the vulnerable points and continue to protect user anonymity.

“There are plenty of people in both organizations who can anonymously leak data to us and say, maybe you should look here, maybe you should look at this to fix this,” he told the BBC in a recent interview. “And they have.”

Lewman has said that his organization receives tips on a monthly basis to fix flaws that could have potentially compromised users. But there’s no telling who is sending this information to them based on how it was sent. Lewman’s accusations are merely a hunch at best; however, consider the kind of work that would have to go into finding these vulnerabilities. “You have to think about the type of people who would be able to do this and have the expertise and time to read Tor source code from scratch for hours, for weeks, for months, and find and elucidate these super-subtle bugs or other things that they probably don’t get to see in most commercial software.”

But why would some NSA officials block progress within their own organization? William Binney, an NSA whistleblower, told Lewman that motives may be as simple as agents being “upset that they are spying on Americans.”

The Dark Web

For those who don’t know what Tor is, its a piece of software you can download for free. Known by most as the “the onion router”, opening this software allows you to browse the web anonymously. This anonymity is achieved by sending your request for a page through a network, so sites can’t determine the origin of the request or the computer it came from–similar to peeling an onion, there are many layers.

The freedom Tor offers comes at a cost, reduced tracking means more privacy and less security against the bad guys. Just the other week Google caught a man using Gmail to send and receive abusive photos of children and a while back AOL unveiled users’ search logs, which left thousands of people’s exposed, left to be scrutinized by anyone looking for a laugh on AOL Stalker. In both situations, users could have been protected had they used Tor, which comes with a wave of concern and relief.

Tor is used by average people–good and bad. There are a sect that are just browsing the web, like journalists, business people, activists, and military. Edward Snowden also used this network to blow the whistle on NSA spying. Covert operations, like GCHQ, “heavily relies on Tor working to be able to do a lot of their operations,” according to Lewman. But there’s also a seedy underbelly of child porn and illegal drug sales.

You have to take the good with the bad if you want to protect your privacy these days. There are over 150 million people who have downloaded the browser in the past year, of which 2.5 million use it each day. It’s important to consider the people who are in dire situations, people who may be fighting against oppression that rely on networks like these–the “dark web”–in order to stay hidden and protected.

“We would be very sad if anyone was arrested, tortured and killed because of some software bug or because of some design decision we made that put them at risk,” Lewman said to the BBC.

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