Tor gets a big fat NSA endorsement

New leaked documents prove the agency's respect for, and inability to break, the Internet's top privacy tool

By Andrew Leonard
Published October 4, 2013 6:14PM (EDT)
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper         (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

The latest salvo of Edward Snowden-leaked documents published in the Guardian confirms what most security researchers have long assumed: For years, the National Security Agency has been focusing considerable resources on efforts to crack Tor -- the Internet's go-to package of tools designed to protect anonymity and defeat the surveillance efforts of spooks ... like the NSA.

Make no mistake -- if you're using Tor, the NSA wants to know who you are. Bad people use Tor, asserts the NSA, including "Terrorists!" (yes, the PowerPoint slideshow includes the exclamation mark). So that's the bad news: The more you try to protect yourself, the more you may be making yourself a target.

The good news, however, is that this particular batch of documents actually works as great advertising for Tor. Because the primary takeaway from the leak is that the NSA has not been able to break Tor's core functionality. "[T]he documents suggest that the fundamental security of the Tor service remains intact," reports the Guardian.

In fact, one of the documents goes so far as to provide a juicy blurb for Tor, calling the service "the king of high-secure, low-latency internet anonymity."

This does not mean that Tor users are guaranteed safety. The leaked documents detail a number of potential attacks against Tor users that exploit weaknesses in the Firefox browser, online advertising networks and other areas. But one of the great services rendered to the security community by Edward Snowden is that now that these weaknesses have been highlighted, they can be fixed. The upshot: better protection.

All in all, a pretty good day for Tor. But we're still left with an infuriating paradox. The U.S. government provides around 60 percent of the funding for the Tor Project, reports the Guardian, on the grounds that it is very useful for dissidents around the world to have access to secure anonymized communications. So while one arm of the government is helping to build these tools, another arm is working desperately hard to break them.

Seems like not quite the most efficient deployment of government funds, no? Maybe the House Republicans can look into that.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew LeonardFOLLOW koxinga21LIKE Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Anonymity Edward Snowden Guardian Nsa Privacy Security Snowden Tor