There is an image of Edward Snowden, floating around on the internet. In this picture, the seated Snowden is staring at us with a somewhat cheeky look on his face, armed with a laptop sporting a sticker that says ‘Tor Project’.
Snowden, the computer specialist who was a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee and an ex-contractor of the National Security Agency (NSA), was already the source of a national embarrassment for the American government. By boasting a ‘Tor Project’ sticker, he has surely had another dig at his former employers.
Living in Russia under asylum, and now considered a fugitive, Snowden came into the limelight after he unmasked the American government for spying on its own people through the country’s National Security Agency’s ‘mass surveillance’ program. Through his actions he has certainly overtaken Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange as the world’s most (in) famous whistleblower.
After the Snowden incident, many experts wondered how the former intelligence employee managed to tread through the internet with such anonymity, unhindered by his own watchful government, especially when he was passing state secrets to the press. Snowden, who claims that the NSA is “intent on making every conversation and every form of behaviour in the world known to them,” has certainly provided a strong hint with the ‘Tor Project’ sticker.
Snowden leaked information to newspapers such as The Guardian and Washington Post on the darknet, protected by the Tor network. These revelations are not only drenched in irony, but add to the embarrassment of the United States, considering that the software which Snowden has used so effectively was actually designed by the very government whose secretive programs Snowden shed light on.
When the Tor software was released in 2002 in its alpha stage, it was originally funded by the US Naval Research Laboratory. Later, it was funded by a non-profit US based digital rights group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, while today, it continues to be funded by the United States and Swedish governments. It is also crowd funded by numerous NGOs and anonymous backers.
According to Tor’s official website, the software was developed with the US Navy in mind, so as to protect the intelligence communications of the United States government. In a top-secret leaked document available on The Guardian website, it has been revealed that the NSA still finds the software to be peerless, and considers it to be ‘The king of high-secure, low-latency anonymity.’
Unfortunately for the NSA, those who act against the interests of the United States government have also found a love for the software. According to Washington Post, the NSA is of the opinion that Tor is ‘offering protection to terrorists and other intelligence targets.’
Roger Dingledine, one of the developers of the software, in an interview with Washington Post, revealed that the NSA has indeed been trying to break into Tor. Unfortunately for them, these attempts have been relatively fruitless. But unlike the NSA, Dingledine feels that Tor has positive uses. He claims that Tor offers ‘anonymity to people who needed it badly — to keep business secrets, protect their identities from oppressive political regimes or conduct research without revealing themselves.’
Judging by the functionality, one would think that the Tor software bundle is quite complex to use, and demands the proficiency of a programmer. In actuality, this free software is accessible for use by anyone on a computer with an internet connection. Available on the official Tor website, the software bundle features a painless installation process and a relatively simple learning curve. The Tor web browser itself sports the Firefox shell, allowing users to feel familiar instantly. This ease of use has certainly helped Tor earn its place as the tool of choice on the web when it comes to secretive internet activities.
The word Tor is an acronym for ‘The Onion Router’. Onion routing, of course, refers to the fact that the software’s encryption continuously encrypts and re-encrypts the data multiple times, until there are layers of encryption, symbolically, like the layers of an onion. Experts say that the data on the final layer is quite secure, and to date, the most effective methods of hacking Tor users have been indirect, via weaknesses in web browsers and websites rather than the actual onion routing.
Tor software has resulted in the creation of websites with the pseudo-top-level domain suffix, .onion. These are anonymous hidden service websites that form part of the so called Deep Web, and are accessible through the Tor network. Such .onion websites aren’t visible on regular search engines, and normally feature illegal activity.
In terms of legitimate uses, the software has become an important tool for reporters, citizen journalists, and bloggers, especially those who report from countries where freedom of speech is severely curtailed, and where governments, in an effort to discourage social change and political reform, have been known to impose harsh penalties such as jail time, and as in the case of North Korea, decades of backbreaking labour in work camps.
Quite often, these are the very countries where the local media is not only shackled but run under the watchful eye of the state. Here, access to free news sources is illegal, and here, the Tor software is especially handy. Of course, Tor also allows users to browse social media websites that have been blocked by their government, such as YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter. These social media websites are sometimes blacklisted by states so as to handicap their people from launching revolutions, and as evident from the ‘Arab Spring’, are at times vital tools of social activism.
On the flipside, the Tor software is often used by journalists in Western nations who wish to research taboo websites run by extremists, without being labelled as terrorists by their own government. In essence, the software allows safe intellectual curiosity in any corner of the world to flourish.
Tor is also effectively used in the business community. It is a common strategy for business websites to display doctored content to users who are keying in from IP addresses that are known to be those of competitors. This is to mislead the competition. Often, the doctored content will feature unrealistic prices or imaginary products. But with Tor software, businesses are able to view such content unhindered thanks to fresh IP addresses. The software is also useful for IT professionals in numerous ways, such as allowing them to verify firewall rules, or work around DNS problems.
As you would expect from the growth of websites in the Deep Web, countless secret marketplaces have also gained popularity on the internet’s underbelly. While many of these underground shops sell legitimate items, the majority deal in merchandise and services that are strictly illegal.
The only reason individuals continue to participate actively in the Deep Web markets is because the Tor software grants them anonymity. Buying any amount of narcotics online is a smaller risk when your identity is protected. This would explain why the majority of traders on these marketplaces are hesitant to use traditional payment methods such as credit cards, checks, and money orders, as these options can be traced.
This is where the decentralized peer-to-peer crypto currency, Bitcoin, has come into play, granting its users an added layer of protection. In the vast majority of darknet marketplaces, Bitcoin is available as the only payment option.
These illegal marketplaces are generating brisk business; the recently closed Silk Road, which was the most popular out of all the illegal hidden marketplaces, boasted revenue of roughly 1.2 billion dollars in nearly two years. Moreover, of the 11.75 million Bitcoins in world circulation, Silk Road had a total of 9.5 million!
After the FBI shut down Silk Road, many wondered if Bitcoin would plummet in value. Initially, it lost some of its gains, but eventually it hit back to a value of 200 dollars. Since then, especially after the interest of the Chinese investors, the currency has soared to over 750 dollars!
For users at home, there are some dangers in dealing in the currency. Since it is digital, and is thus traded computer-to-computer, many experts paradoxically recommend not storing it on devices with an internet connection, where it can be stolen. Recently, a Bitcoin website was hacked, where 1.2 million dollars worth of the currency was stolen from a user named ‘TradeFortress’, who wishes to remain anonymous due to safety concerns. Sadly, these coins had been stored by users of the website for safe keeping.
Stilgherrian, a technology expert told the Daily Mail that Bitcoins were difficult to trace and quite vulnerable to thievery, “People rob banks because that's where the money is, your Bitcoin wallet - which is really just a digital file sitting on your computer - can be just as vulnerable, and just as attractive.”
From court documents pertaining to the Silk Road case, it has been established that some Silk Road employees were taking advantage of the anonymous nature of the marketplace and the currency to rip off Bitcoins from users. This goes to show that although Bitcoins and the Tor software may provide protection from the authorities, they don’t provide protection from thievery.