Is Tor Permanently Broken?

Tor-logo-2011-flat.svgFederal law enforcement seems to have decided that anonymizing networks are public enemy number one. They’ve racked up some impressive wins in taking down drug-trading market Silk Road, notorious child pornography site Lolita City, and now have managed to bring down Doxbin, a site famous for disclosing sensitive personal information. The world is a better place without those sites, but the ways in which the feds have gone about taking them down makes me think we’re paying too great a price for those wins. Is it possible that they have almost single-handedly destroyed the last great anonymizing tool of the Internet?

Tor was designed as a system of proxies to mask the true source of any request for data. It also encrypts all data in transit in order to prevent any eavesdropping along the way. The design depends on lots of different nodes owned by different parties in order to maintain that anonymity. If anyone gained control of a majority of the nodes, they would be in a position to de-anonymize every user. Even with a large number of nodes, it would still be possible to unmask targeted users with enough persistence.

Now ask yourself one question: who has the resources and determination to attempt to wrest control of enough network nodes to destroy its anonymizing potential?

As we can see above, that can accomplish some good things. Unfortunately, it also means that anyone who gets on the bad side of the US government without breaking any laws now can’t depend on the most important anonymizing tool available today. Evidence exists that this may already be the case, but the feds have kept very quiet about that capability. It’s also not inconceivable that another state actor may attempt to gain access to that de-anonymizing capability without having to build the infrastructure themselves. That puts reporters, whistleblowers, and human rights activists in sometimes mortal danger.

You have to ask yourself if catching the occasional drug runner, child porn collector, or hitman is worth putting millions of lives at risk in totalitarian countries. I hope you’ll agree with me that it is not, especially since those bad guys have been caught without putting the good guys at risk.

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