What is Tor?
Tor is a network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet. It also enables software developers to create new communication tools with built-in privacy features. Tor provides the foundation for a range of applications that allow organizations and individuals to share information over public networks without compromising their privacy.
Individuals use Tor to keep websites from tracking them and their family members, or to connect to news sites, instant messaging services, or the like when these are blocked by their local Internet providers. Tor’s hidden services let users publish web sites and other services without needing to reveal the location of the site. Individuals also use Tor for socially sensitive communication: chat rooms and web forums for rape and abuse survivors, or people with illnesses.
A Prize of Huge amount from Russian Government
The Russian government is offering a bounty for anyone who works out how to track Tor users. A prize of 3.9 million rubles ($111,000) from Russia’s Interior Ministry has been set for anyone able to provide a tool capable of monitoring the movements of one individual user on the Tor network, following a rise of the number of users of the anonymizing network in the country.
The request for submissions, made on a government website two weeks ago but has only just been brought to light according to Russia Today, has since been modified by the government to remove the public description, though it is understood the winner of the prize will be revealed on August 20th.
Sarkis Darbinyan, a lawyer for the Pirate Party in Russia, advises the Russian government is keen to prevent Internet users from spreading dissent or from seeing such messages elsewhere. “Law enforcers are worried about the ability of Internet users to anonymously visit the Internet, and particularly blocked sites,” said Darbinyan. “Also, the new blogging law that comes into force in August says that all bloggers with a daily audience of over 3,000 must register their identity. But someone blogging through Tor can do so anonymously.”
While Russia has approximately 30 million households able to access the Internet, only a small number are using tools such as Tor. Even so, it is believed the number of Tor users in the country has increased from 80,000 in May to almost 200,000 this month.
The advantages of tracking users on anonymizing services aren’t lost on other security services. Das Erste claimed earlier this month that the NSA has actively watched two Tor servers based in Germany, with the agency reportedly using a tool called Xkeyscore to try and track users. Earlier this week, a team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon were forced to pull their Black Hat hacker conference presentation on deanonymizing Tor users after university lawyers stepped in, claiming approval to disclose the method had not been given. According to The Guardian, the talk would have explained how “hundreds of thousands of Tor clients” and other hidden services could be de-anonymized “within a couple of months” for $3,000.