In an effort to increase surveillance and censorship efforts, the Russian government is putting up a bounty to anyone who can make significant inroads to reveal users on Tor, the anonymizing network for privacy seekers.
Tor, most often accessed via the Tor Browser, is a network that encrypts user browsing data and redirects it randomly across multiple servers (known as “hops”) before reaching its destination. This keeps the location, IP address, and identity of the user relatively anonymous, though the fact that Tor is being used won’t be secret.
In addition to privacy concerns, Tor can be used to circumvent censorship, which is particularly pertinent in the Russian setting currently. For the past year or so, Russia has stepped up its selective blocking of web sites and content, both on a per-page and per-site basis. While much is under the guise of protecting children, opposing political views have also been removed from access.
These filters require the Internet service provider (ISP) to monitor the activities of Internet subscribers or getting the website to agree to restrict access to Russian users. Using Tor, both of these methods are ineffective since the ISP cannot inspect the browsing data and the user’s IP address will make them appear to be from outside Russia to the website they visit.
After calling the Internet “a special CIA project,” Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a requirement that all Russian bloggers whose sites receive 3,000 or more views per day register with the federal government in May. Those bloggers will be held to the same “accuracy” restrictions that newspapers and the like are, and are not allowed to be anonymous.
Shortly thereafter, Russian use of Tor skyrocketed.
Tor could much more accurately be described as a special project of the United States government, since it was more recently created for the purpose of anonymizing military communications and continues to receive federal funding for upkeep.
According to the reading of the newest Russian decree by The Daily Dot, the equivalent of just over $110,000 USD is the offering for research into how to de-anonymize (reveal the identity) of Tor users. The increased use of Tor to circumvent censorship law has clearly not gone over the heads of Russian regulators.
That isn’t to say attempts to weaken Tor are restricted to Russia and other non-Western countries. Among the Edward Snowden leaks is an internal NSA presentation entitled “Tor Stinks” in which it laments the general uncrackability of the network while plotting ways to de-anonymize small amounts of users. More recently, we reported on leaked NSA code that shows that anyone who researches Tor is immediately added to a watch list.
With all of that said, Russia seems a little under-equipped with this bounty.
Tor is complex and, as an open source project, is constantly reviewed by countless programmers to look for security vulnerabilities. Offering the equivalent of about one year’s salary for a programmer to crack a system that costs millions of dollars to maintain is probably going to end up fruitless.