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Summary:

The United States paid to build the Tor network, which provides a secure way to communicate for everyone, including the military and dissidents. Why, then, is it also trying to compromise it?

A top secret slide show by the National Security Agency shows how the US government has been trying to compromise the Tor network, a tool that allows people to communicate anonymously on the internet.

The slide show, published by the Guardian is the latest in a series of leaks from ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The Tor technology it describes was, ironically, largely paid for by the US government as a way to provide a private communication system for the military and for dissidents to escape surveillance.

Tor itself stands for The Onion Router. It relies on a system of encryption and bouncing messages around different servers in order to ensure Tor users’ communications are invisible and untraceable.

According to the slides, the NSA has been trying to lure Tor traffic to specific servers that it controls, and to get into users’ computers directly so as to compromise their web browser. It includes photos like this: (

Tor screenshot

Reports about the slide show suggest that the Tor network itself is not compromised, and is still effective as a secret communications system. But the NSA’s efforts to burrow into it have caused outrage in some quarters, and raised questions about America’s strategic goals.

Well-known security expert Bruce Scheier argued in the Guardian that the US is working at cross purposes by constructing secure communications tools while simultaneously undermining them. He pointed out that a backdoor put in place by a government would inevitably get discovered by others – including by criminals who will use it to attack others on the internet. While a secure network will make it harder to track terrorists, Scheier said all of us would ultimately be better off if we had a private way to communicate.

My colleague David Meyer has raised a similar point over revelations that the NSA had a program to subvert and undermine common encryption protocols. Doing so, he pointed out, undermines America’s integrity in the world or encryption and security, and will likely cost the country friends and customers.

  1. Anyone counting on tools developed by US Defence/Intelligence Wings to protect their privacy/communication/data is really idiotic in the first place. These things are only developed to help dissidents of countries US wants to target and weaken (which is pretty much every country in the world).

    These aren’t tools of free speech or privacy protection, but rather of state craft aimed at undermining everyone else’s interests, while bolstering its own.

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