The Anonymity Network At Risk

Editor’s note: Debbie Fletcher is a writer who has written for a range of different magazines and news publications..

You don’t have to watch NCIS to know that almost everything we do leaves some kind of trail or trace. Every click of the Internet and every post we make, email we send and file we download are all being tracked by someone somewhere. Unless, of course, it isn’t.

There are many reasons a person would want to go incognito on the Internet, and those reasons run the gamut from reasonable to evil. Therefore, there are many reasons a program that allows people to be anonymous on the Internet would be targeted for attack. Here’s why the anonymity network TOR is said to be at risk in 2015, and what the origin of the risk truly is.

What TOR Is For

Tor isn’t just any old Internet application that can aid important dissident political movements as well as providing a haven for drug traffickers. TOR is a free software package that acts as an anonymity network to enable users to navigate the Internet without being tracked by corporations, government agencies or other parties. These Internet communications are anonymized using application layers of encryption – also known as onion routing. (TOR previously stood for The Onion Router.)

TOR is used by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. Your Uncle Larry with the tinfoil hat makes for an obvious fan, as do run-of-the-mill privacy enthusiasts. TOR has also become invaluable for people like domestic abuse victims and their social workers who need to keep their locations and communication under wraps in order to avoid digital stalking.

On a larger scale, TOR is widely used by journalists, political activists and citizens in countries that face censorship or Internet restrictions that have reason to fear reprisal from the government. TOR has played an integral part in political movements in Iran and Egypt, and was famously used by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

As there is for almost everything involving the Internet, however, there’s another side to TOR. It can, and is, used for illegal activity, including the distribution of illicit sexual content, the distribution of controlled substances, identity theft, credit-card fraud and bank fraud. TOR is known to be used by hacktivist groups, as well as criminal enterprises.

Already Under Attack

Pardon us if you saw this one coming, but the hacker group the Lizard Squad – famous for its repeated attacks on Sony – spent the end of 2014 targeting TOR. TOR’s anonymizing is made possible by a massive network of computers known as volunteer nodes. The Lizard Squad’s attacks on TOR are made possible by members overtaking huge numbers of the volunteer nodes. By overtaking these nodes, hackers are essentially able to eavesdrop on TOR users, leaving them open to further attack or possible extortion attempts.

It seems a war may be brewing between hacktivist groups over the Lizard Squad’s targeting of TOR. While the Lizard Squad’s antics with Sony have largely been regarded with benign amusement by most denizens of the Internet, messing with TOR is not turning out to have the same effect. Internet activist group Anonymous has taken exception to the attacks on TOR, stating that users need the service due to corrupt governments. Anonymous has warned the Lizard Squad to stand down.

The 2015 TOR Attack Trend

As bad as being caught in a battle between Anonymous and the Lizard Squad seems like it would be, if Internet security analysts are right, 2015 could get even uglier for TOR. Not only will TOR users have to be wary that they could be targeted by the Lizard Squad or other hacker groups, it’s likely they could also be targeted by government agencies.

DDoS attacks against North Korea have already made major headlines over the last month, bringing even more public attention to the issue of DDoS attacks. And with so much illegal activity alleged to be taking place on TOR, analysts agree it’s only a matter of time before police, the NSA, the FBI and other government agencies are seeking to unmask TOR service providers through small, targeted DDoS attacks on the anonymity network.

In fact, the security of TOR was already called into question in November of 2014 when the FBI shut down roughly 400 websites involved in the sale of contraband and arrested 17 people involved with online drug marketplaces. All of those people had assumed they were operating anonymously.

TOR is already what analysts call a ‘fragile network,’ and with hacker groups as well as legitimate organizations like government agencies targeting it for attack, it would seem TOR has some adapting to do.

We already know DDoS attacks are going to continue to grow in popularity and in level of devastation, so it’s up to networks and organizations like TOR to evolve in how they deal with these attacks.