US head of intelligence: NSA wants to break Tor to get at the bad guys

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

Sliced onion. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.The US National Security Agency (NSA) really, really hates Tor, the anonymising service.

If we had any doubts on that point, the issue was clarified by a top-secret NSA presentation leaked by Edward Snowden and titled, plainly enough, "Tor Stinks", published by The Guardian on Friday.

Also on Friday, the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, posted a statement explaining just why, exactly, the NSA loathes Tor so much.

It's simply because that's where the bad guys are, Clapper wrote:

The Intelligence Community’s interest in online anonymity services and other online communication and networking tools is based on the undeniable fact that these are the tools our adversaries use to communicate and coordinate attacks against the United States and our allies.

The Guardian also reported on Friday that the NSA has for at least the past two years teamed up with the United Kingdom's electronic eavesdropping and security agency, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), to analyse Tor, figure out where they can crack its anonymity, and even attack, with some degree of success, users' computers.

At the time of the presentation, dated June 2012, the agencies apparently were fairly frustrated at how difficult the job of peeling apart Tor's layers had proved.

Here's how the presentation put it:

We will never be able to de-anonymize all Tor users all of the time.

The presentation outlines a gamut of attack methods, including using what it called “manual analysis” to "de-anonymise" a small fraction of Tor users, operating a network of Tor-enabled relay servers in order to get access to other relay servers, and poisoning the Tor network itself by degrading the network's stability.

In spite of such revelations, Clapper insists in his statement that the intelligence community has pure motives and that they're all working strictly within a legal framework:

The Intelligence Community is only interested in communication related to valid foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes and that we operate within a strict legal framework that prohibits accessing information related to the innocent online activities of US citizens.

As AllThings3D's Arik Hesseldahl pointed out, Tor is like any anonymising technology: it can be used for both good and bad, by both terrorists and political activists struggling against repressive regimes.

Any Tor user will likely feel a sense of relief that the NSA hasn't cracked the network - at least, not yet, as far as we can tell from the documents that have been released thus far.

It would be wonderful if we could take solace in Mr. Clapper's reassurances that all this surveillance is happening in a "strict legal framework" that protects the online activities of innocent US citizens (it would be better still, of course, if that strict legal framework protected all innocent citizens of all countries).

But news like that of last week, when NSA inspector general Dr. George Ellard detailed 12 investigations into "intentional and and willful misuse" of spying tools by civilian and military NSA employees, undercut such claims.

If the NSA can't stop one employee from, for example, serial snoopery on the telephones of nine foreign women over the course of five years, then it's difficult to swallow Clapper's claims that this supposedly strict legal framework within which the NSA operates isn't actually mottled with flab.

Image of sliced onion courtesy of Shutterstock.

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9 Responses to US head of intelligence: NSA wants to break Tor to get at the bad guys

  1. Anonymou5 · 293 days ago

    As we all know, Tor can be used to do both good and bad things. The fact that it's being used by some people to do bad stuff on the internet isn't, in my opinion, a reason to prevent those who use it for the right reasons from being able to do so.

    If the NSA is so keen to prevent the use of Tor, can we also assume that they're as keen to stop people from owning handguns which, like Tor, can also be used to good and bad things?

    (For any GCHQ employees reading this comment, replace handguns with knives in the example above)

    • Andrew · 293 days ago

      What makes you think that GCHQ do not use handguns.

    • Anon · 293 days ago

      So in the eye's of the NSA anyone using Tor is a Terrorist xD That logic everyone use tor.

  2. Adam · 293 days ago

    Why shouldn't we believe them when they say they have pure motives and are working in a "strict legal framework"? I mean, they've always played by the rules before, right?

    Sometimes I think these people have never read 1984, Brave New World, etc... even if (somehow) they are working with such pure motives as they claim, there's no guarantee that the next guy will. And by then whatever protection we had will be gone.

  3. It's all being done under the guise of preventing terrorism, but the truth is they are looking for unreported and illicit income that they could tax and fine.

  4. NoSpin · 293 days ago

    Unfortunately no one seems to know the NSA definition of "strict legal framework".

  5. Just another attempt by the government to try to take over the net and spy on people.

  6. Shiny · 292 days ago

    I find it kinda funny that the US hates Tor when it was designed by the US Naval Research Laboratory. They gave the world Tor then are crying about it almost like..if we give this browser to people it'll make them think they are umm, supposed to, err, use it !!! It's a bit like atomic/nuclear weapons. The US invent them, use them, but tell everyone else, Oh you can't have them as you may use it for something bad. Same with water, you can drink it and save lives with it or use it in a bad way for waterboarding prisoners.

    The big problem with blocking something people use correctly and innocently in case others use it for bad reasons will just mean the bad people will find something else even more underground and covert. From Viking hoards to today people have invaded others and been for want of a better word 'terrorists'. It'll always happen unfortunately. The US idea currently is if you don't tell them every detail at any moment of the day you must be a terrorist. It appears to be a stance that's making them more unpopular the world over.

  7. roy jones jr · 290 days ago

    That may be true Shiny. But can anyone answer this: What do you do on Tor? As in what are you doing on that site that you can't do on a site where you have to make an account?

    Get advice for making a website? Get advice for starting a business? Get advice for antivirus software? you could go anywhere but Tor

    You see where I'm going with this. security agencies run on statistics. criminals want to be unknown. Tor gives you the ability to be unknown.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.