Entries Tagged "Tor"

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The Kindness of Strangers

When I was growing up, children were commonly taught: “don’t talk to strangers.” Strangers might be bad, we were told, so it’s prudent to steer clear of them.

And yet most people are honest, kind, and generous, especially when someone asks them for help. If a small child is in trouble, the smartest thing he can do is find a nice-looking stranger and talk to him.

These two pieces of advice may seem to contradict each other, but they don’t. The difference is that in the second instance, the child is choosing which stranger to talk to. Given that the overwhelming majority of people will help, the child is likely to get help if he chooses a random stranger. But if a stranger comes up to a child and talks to him or her, it’s not a random choice. It’s more likely, although still unlikely, that the stranger is up to no good.

As a species, we tend help each other, and a surprising amount of our security and safety comes from the kindness of strangers. During disasters: floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, bridge collapses. In times of personal tragedy. And even in normal times.

If you’re sitting in a café working on your laptop and need to get up for a minute, ask the person sitting next to you to watch your stuff. He’s very unlikely to steal anything. Or, if you’re nervous about that, ask the three people sitting around you. Those three people don’t know each other, and will not only watch your stuff, but they’ll also watch each other to make sure no one steals anything.

Again, this works because you’re selecting the people. If three people walk up to you in the café and offer to watch your computer while you go to the bathroom, don’t take them up on that offer. Your odds of getting three honest people are much lower.

Some computer systems rely on the kindness of strangers, too. The Internet works because nodes benevolently forward packets to each other without any recompense from either the sender or receiver of those packets. Wikipedia works because strangers are willing to write for, and edit, an encyclopedia — with no recompense.

Collaborative spam filtering is another example. Basically, once someone notices a particular e-mail is spam, he marks it, and everyone else in the network is alerted that it’s spam. Marking the e-mail is a completely altruistic task; the person doing it gets no benefit from the action. But he receives benefit from everyone else doing it for other e-mails.

Tor is a system for anonymous Web browsing. The details are complicated, but basically, a network of Tor servers passes Web traffic among each other in such a way as to anonymize where it came from. Think of it as a giant shell game. As a Web surfer, I put my Web query inside a shell and send it to a random Tor server. That server knows who I am but not what I am doing. It passes that shell to another Tor server, which passes it to a third. That third server — which knows what I am doing but not who I am — processes the Web query. When the Web page comes back to that third server, the process reverses itself and I get my Web page. Assuming enough Web surfers are sending enough shells through the system, even someone eavesdropping on the entire network can’t figure out what I’m doing.

It’s a very clever system, and it protects a lot of people, including journalists, human rights activists, whistleblowers, and ordinary people living in repressive regimes around the world. But it only works because of the kindness of strangers. No one gets any benefit from being a Tor server; it uses up bandwidth to forward other people’s packets around. It’s more efficient to be a Tor client and use the forwarding capabilities of others. But if there are no Tor servers, then there’s no Tor. Tor works because people are willing to set themselves up as servers, at no benefit to them.

Alibi clubs work along similar lines. You can find them on the Internet, and they’re loose collections of people willing to help each other out with alibis. Sign up, and you’re in. You can ask someone to pretend to be your doctor and call your boss. Or someone to pretend to be your boss and call your spouse. Or maybe someone to pretend to be your spouse and call your boss. Whatever you want, just ask and some anonymous stranger will come to your rescue. And because your accomplice is an anonymous stranger, it’s safer than asking a friend to participate in your ruse.

There are risks in these sorts of systems. Regularly, marketers and other people with agendas try to manipulate Wikipedia entries to suit their interests. Intelligence agencies can, and almost certainly have, set themselves up as Tor servers to better eavesdrop on traffic. And a do-gooder could join an alibi club just to expose other members. But for the most part, strangers are willing to help each other, and systems that harvest this kindness work very well on the Internet.

This essay originally appeared on the Wall Street Journal website.

Posted on March 13, 2009 at 7:41 AMView Comments

Dan Egerstad Arrested

I previously wrote about Dan Egerstad, a security researcher who ran a Tor anonymity network and was able to sniff some pretty impressive usernames and passwords.

Swedish police arrested him:

About 9am Egerstad walked downstairs to move his car when he was accosted by the officers in a scene “taken out of a bad movie”, he said in an email interview.

“I got a couple of police IDs in my face while told that they are taking me in for questioning,” he said.

But not before the agents, who had staked out his house in undercover blue and grey Saabs (“something that screams cop to every person in Sweden from miles away”), searched his apartment and confiscated computers, CDs and portable hard drives.

“They broke my wardrobe, short cutted my electricity, pulled out my speakers, phone and other cables having nothing to do with this and been touching my bookkeeping, which they have no right to do,” he said.

While questioning Egerstad at the station, the police “played every trick in the book, good cop, bad cop and crazy mysterious guy in the corner not wanting to tell his name and just staring at me”.

“Well, if they want to try to manipulate, I can play that game too. [I] gave every known body signal there is telling of lies … covered my mouth, scratched my elbow, looked away and so on.”

No charges have been filed. I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with what he did.

Here’s a good article on what he did; it was published just before the arrest.

Posted on November 16, 2007 at 2:27 PMView Comments

Anonymity and the Tor Network

As the name implies, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are anonymous. You don’t have to sign anything, show ID or even reveal your real name. But the meetings are not private. Anyone is free to attend. And anyone is free to recognize you: by your face, by your voice, by the stories you tell. Anonymity is not the same as privacy.

That’s obvious and uninteresting, but many of us seem to forget it when we’re on a computer. We think “it’s secure,” and forget that secure can mean many different things.

Tor is a free tool that allows people to use the internet anonymously. Basically, by joining Tor you join a network of computers around the world that pass internet traffic randomly amongst each other before sending it out to wherever it is going. Imagine a tight huddle of people passing letters around. Once in a while a letter leaves the huddle, sent off to some destination. If you can’t see what’s going on inside the huddle, you can’t tell who sent what letter based on watching letters leave the huddle.

I’ve left out a lot of details, but that’s basically how Tor works. It’s called “onion routing,” and it was first developed at the Naval Research Laboratory. The communications between Tor nodes are encrypted in a layered protocol — hence the onion analogy — but the traffic that leaves the Tor network is in the clear. It has to be.

If you want your Tor traffic to be private, you need to encrypt it. If you want it to be authenticated, you need to sign it as well. The Tor website even says:

Yes, the guy running the exit node can read the bytes that come in and out there. Tor anonymizes the origin of your traffic, and it makes sure to encrypt everything inside the Tor network, but it does not magically encrypt all traffic throughout the internet.

Tor anonymizes, nothing more.

Dan Egerstad is a Swedish security researcher; he ran five Tor nodes. Last month, he posted a list of 100 e-mail credentials — server IP addresses, e-mail accounts and the corresponding passwords — for
embassies and government ministries
around the globe, all obtained by sniffing exit traffic for usernames and passwords of e-mail servers.

The list contains mostly third-world embassies: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, India, Iran, Mongolia — but there’s a Japanese embassy on the list, as well as the UK Visa Application Center in Nepal, the Russian Embassy in Sweden, the Office of the Dalai Lama and several Hong Kong Human Rights Groups. And this is just the tip of the iceberg; Egerstad sniffed more than 1,000 corporate accounts this way, too. Scary stuff, indeed.

Presumably, most of these organizations are using Tor to hide their network traffic from their host countries’ spies. But because anyone can join the Tor network, Tor users necessarily pass their traffic to organizations they might not trust: various intelligence agencies, hacker groups, criminal organizations and so on.

It’s simply inconceivable that Egerstad is the first person to do this sort of eavesdropping; Len Sassaman published a paper on this attack earlier this year. The price you pay for anonymity is exposing your traffic to shady people.

We don’t really know whether the Tor users were the accounts’ legitimate owners, or if they were hackers who had broken into the accounts by other means and were now using Tor to avoid being caught. But certainly most of these users didn’t realize that anonymity doesn’t mean privacy. The fact that most of the accounts listed by Egerstad were from small nations is no surprise; that’s where you’d expect weaker security practices.

True anonymity is hard. Just as you could be recognized at an AA meeting, you can be recognized on the internet as well. There’s a lot of research on breaking anonymity in general — and Tor specifically — but sometimes it doesn’t even take much. Last year, AOL made 20,000 anonymous search queries public as a research tool. It wasn’t very hard to identify people from the data.

A research project called Dark Web, funded by the National Science Foundation, even tried to identify anonymous writers by their style:

One of the tools developed by Dark Web is a technique called Writeprint, which automatically extracts thousands of multilingual, structural, and semantic features to determine who is creating “anonymous” content online. Writeprint can look at a posting on an online bulletin board, for example, and compare it with writings found elsewhere on the Internet. By analyzing these certain features, it can determine with more than 95 percent accuracy if the author has produced other content in the past.

And if your name or other identifying information is in just one of those writings, you can be identified.

Like all security tools, Tor is used by both good guys and bad guys. And perversely, the very fact that something is on the Tor network means that someone — for some reason — wants to hide the fact he’s doing it.

As long as Tor is a magnet for “interesting” traffic, Tor will also be a magnet for those who want to eavesdrop on that traffic — especially because more than 90 percent of Tor users don’t encrypt.

This essay previously appeared on Wired.com.

Posted on September 20, 2007 at 5:38 AMView Comments

Torpark

Torpark is a free anonymous web browser. It sounds good:

A group of computer hackers and human rights workers have launched a specially-crafted version of Firefox that claims to give users complete anonymity when they surf the Web.

Dubbed “Torpark” and based on a portable version of Firefox 1.5.0.7, the browser will run from a USB drive, so it leaves no installation tracks on the PC. It protects the user’s privacy by encrypting all in- and outbound data, and also anonymizes the connection by passing all data through the TOR network, which masks the true IP address of the machine.

From the website:

Torpark is a program which allows you to surf the internet anonymously. Download Torpark and put it on a USB Flash keychain. Plug it into any internet terminal whether at home, school, work, or in public. Torpark will launch a Tor circuit connection, which creates an encrypted tunnel from your computer indirectly to a Tor exit computer, allowing you to surf the internet anonymously.

More details here.

Posted on September 28, 2006 at 6:51 AMView Comments

TrackMeNot

In the wake of AOL’s publication of search data, and the New York Times article demonstrating how easy it is to figure out who did the searching, we have TrackMeNot:

TrackMeNot runs in Firefox as a low-priority background process that periodically issues randomized search-queries to popular search engines, e.g., AOL, Yahoo!, Google, and MSN. It hides users’ actual search trails in a cloud of indistinguishable ‘ghost’ queries, making it difficult, if not impossible, to aggregate such data into accurate or identifying user profiles. TrackMeNot integrates into the Firefox ‘Tools’ menu and includes a variety of user-configurable options.

Let’s count the ways this doesn’t work.

One, it doesn’t hide your searches. If the government wants to know who’s been searching on “al Qaeda recruitment centers,” it won’t matter that you’ve made ten thousand other searches as well — you’ll be targeted.

Two, it’s too easy to spot. There are only 1,673 search terms in the program’s dictionary. Here, as a random example, are the program’s “G” words:

gag, gagged, gagging, gags, gas, gaseous, gases, gassed, gasses, gassing, gen, generate, generated, generates, generating, gens, gig, gigs, gillion, gillions, glass, glasses, glitch, glitched, glitches, glitching, glob, globed, globing, globs, glue, glues, gnarlier, gnarliest, gnarly, gobble, gobbled, gobbles, gobbling, golden, goldener, goldenest, gonk, gonked, gonking, gonks, gonzo, gopher, gophers, gorp, gorps, gotcha, gotchas, gribble, gribbles, grind, grinding, grinds, grok, grokked, grokking, groks, ground, grovel, groveled, groveling, grovelled, grovelling, grovels, grue, grues, grunge, grunges, gun, gunned, gunning, guns, guru, gurus

The program’s authors claim that this list is temporary, and that there will eventually be a TrackMeNot server with an ever-changing word list. Of course, that list can be monitored by any analysis program — as could any queries to that server.

In any case, every twelve seconds — exactly — the program picks a random pair of words and sends it to either AOL, Yahoo, MSN, or Google. My guess is that your searches contain more than two words, you don’t send them out in precise twelve-second intervals, and you favor one search engine over the others.

Three, some of the program’s searches are worse than yours. The dictionary includes:

HIV, atomic, bomb, bible, bibles, bombing, bombs, boxes, choke, choked, chokes, choking, chain, crackers, empire, evil, erotics, erotices, fingers, knobs, kicking, harier, hamster, hairs, legal, letterbomb, letterbombs, mailbomb, mailbombing, mailbombs, rapes, raping, rape, raper, rapist, virgin, warez, warezes, whack, whacked, whacker, whacking, whackers, whacks, pistols

Does anyone reall think that searches on “erotic rape,” “mailbombing bibles,” and “choking virgins” will make their legitimate searches less noteworthy?

And four, it wastes a whole lot of bandwidth. A query every twelve seconds translates into 2,400 queries a day, assuming an eight-hour workday. A typical Google response is about 25K, so we’re talking 60 megabytes of additional traffic daily. Imagine if everyone in the company used it.

I suppose this kind of thing would stop someone who has a paper printout of your searches and is looking through them manually, but it’s not going to hamper computer analysis very much. Or anyone who isn’t lazy. But it wouldn’t be hard for a computer profiling program to ignore these searches.

As one commentator put it:

Imagine a cop pulls you over for speeding. As he approaches, you realize you left your wallet at home. Without your driver’s license, you could be in a lot of trouble. When he approaches, you roll down your window and shout. “Hello Officer! I don’t have insurance on this vehicle! This car is stolen! I have weed in my glovebox! I don’t have my driver’s license! I just hit an old lady minutes ago! I’ve been running stop lights all morning! I have a dead body in my trunk! This car doesn’t pass the emissions tests! I’m not allowed to drive because I am under house arrest! My gas tank runs on the blood of children!” You stop to catch a breath, confident you have supplied so much information to the cop that you can’t possibly be caught for not having your license now.

Yes, data mining is a signal-to-noise problem. But artificial noise like this isn’t going to help much. If I were going to improve on this idea, I would make the plugin watch the user’s search patterns. I would make it send queries only to the search engines the user does, only when he is actually online doing things. I would randomize the timing. (There’s a comment to that effect in the code, so presumably this will be fixed in a later version of the program.) And I would make it monitor the web pages the user looks at, and send queries based on keywords it finds on those pages. And I would make it send queries in the form the user tends to use, whether it be single words, pairs of words, or whatever.

But honestly, I don’t know that I would use it even then. The way serious people protect their web-searching privacy is through anonymization. Use Tor for serious web anonymization. Or Black Box Search for simple anonymous searching (here’s a Greasemonkey extension that does that automatically.) And set your browser to delete search engine cookies regularly.

Posted on August 23, 2006 at 6:53 AMView Comments

ScatterChat

ScatterChat is a secure instant messaging client. From the press release:

ScatterChat is unique in that it is intended for non-technical human rights activists and political dissidents operating behind oppressive national firewalls. It is an instant messaging client that provides end-to-end encryption over the Electronic Frontier Foundation-endorsed Tor network. Its security features include resiliency against partial compromise through perfect forward secrecy, immunity from replay attacks, and limited resistance to traffic analysis, all reinforced through a pro-actively secure design.

A nice application of Tor.

EDITED TO ADD (8/8): There are flaws in the protocol. There’s an advisory on one of them.

Posted on July 31, 2006 at 1:48 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.