Did the FBI Pay a University to Attack Tor Users?
The Tor Project has learned more about last year's attack by Carnegie Mellon researchers on the hidden service subsystem. Apparently these researchers were paid by the FBI to attack hidden services users in a broad sweep, and then sift through their data to find people whom they could accuse of crimes. We publicized the attack last year, along with the steps we took to slow down or stop such an attack in the future:
Here is the link to their (since withdrawn) submission to the Black Hat conference:
along with Ed Felten's analysis at the time:
We have been told that the payment to CMU was at least $1 million.
There is no indication yet that they had a warrant or any institutional oversight by Carnegie Mellon's Institutional Review Board. We think it's unlikely they could have gotten a valid warrant for CMU's attack as conducted, since it was not narrowly tailored to target criminals or criminal activity, but instead appears to have indiscriminately targeted many users at once.
Such action is a violation of our trust and basic guidelines for ethical research. We strongly support independent research on our software and network, but this attack crosses the crucial line between research and endangering innocent users.
This attack also sets a troubling precedent: Civil liberties are under attack if law enforcement believes it can circumvent the rules of evidence by outsourcing police work to universities. If academia uses "research" as a stalking horse for privacy invasion, the entire enterprise of security research will fall into disrepute. Legitimate privacy researchers study many online systems, including social networks — If this kind of FBI attack by university proxy is accepted, no one will have meaningful 4th Amendment protections online and everyone is at risk.
When we learned of this vulnerability last year, we patched it and published the information we had on our blog:
We teach law enforcement agents that they can use Tor to do their investigations ethically, and we support such use of Tor — but the mere veneer of a law enforcement investigation cannot justify wholesale invasion of people's privacy, and certainly cannot give it the color of "legitimate research".
Whatever academic security research should be in the 21st century, it certainly does not include "experiments" for pay that indiscriminately endanger strangers without their knowledge or consent.
But of course! Child pornographers "get caught" every time the FBI executes an operation of questionable legality. If it wasn't for those child pornographers conveniently waiting to get caught every time, congress and judiciaries might do something about those illegal ops, but they can't because... think of the children!
It is TOR's failure to protect the hidden services, not the FBI's failure in choosing to take advantage of a disclosure issue. If your code is spilling everyone's information everywhere, don't go crying about how you're the real victim.
Tor is getting a bad reputation for its criminal infestation. Many people's first introduction to Tor hidden services is so they can pay a bitcoin ransom, or they hear you can get drugs or child porn on there. The FBI is totally justified in doing everything they can to find and shut down the sites. Every prosecution was against pedophiles and drug sites, and it's clear that they aren't going after innocent people for visiting innocent websites.