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Monday, 05 August 2013 13:34

The FBI peels away at TOR illegal activity


TOR is the dark side of the Internet, the so-called dark web, which provides a safe haven to privacy advocates but is also where drugs, child pornography, assassins for hire and other weird and illegal activities can allegedly be traded. The FBI has made a massive dent in the TOR network, compromising half of all TOR sites.

TOR, otherwise known as The Onion Router, is a complex multi-layered series of encrypted proxy networks routing traffic from here to there, anonymising its users. The idea behind TOR is privacy-minded individuals - political fugitives for example - can talk freely. Of course, TOR is better known for sites like The Silk Road where allegedly anything is for sale.

I myself ventured onto TOR in the past and it was like something out of a William Gibson cyperpunk novel, where you jack in and any sort of illegal item you could want is for sale - cocaine or heroin or guns or your boss killed or pictures of underage children or whatever else.

In amongst discussions of politics or other matters, TOR contains a bizarre online bazaar, a virtual souk of the illicit, illegal and immoral. All you needed was to install the TOR connection software and have ready access to the online-only Bitcoin currency. Now, whether such sites were genuine or scams or even some odd dark-humour I did not attempt to find out. All I can say is web sites existed which purported to sell such things and which provided details how to pay via BitCoin in advance.

Unlike eBay where shops and shoppers alike pride themselves on positive feedback, TOR's anonymity cannot be understated. After all, that was it's reason for existence. Who was selling? Who was buying? Nobody knew. The FBI wanted to know, however.

In the visible Internet, the one we all know, if you wish to publish a web site you could use your own infrastructure or sign up with a web host. It's the same on the dark web, and due to the complexity of self-hosting, many TOR sites chose to host with a provider, specifically The Freedom Host. It is this host who the FBI targeted.

The FBI did not compromise the TOR network itself, it is important to understand. The complex multi-layers of encryption still stand. Instead the FBI compromised the TOR browser, which at heart is just a web browser. The FBI found a zero-day JavaScript exploit and used this to implant a cookie which fingerprinted users through a specific external server.

Ironically, the TOR browser has a JavaScript blocker named NoScript installed by default, just not enabled by default for user- friendliness.

A mass outage of TOR sites, hosted on Freedom Hosting, showed an error that the server was down for maintenance. In truth, this error page was identifying TOR users via the JavaScript exploit.

The FBI state they are cracking down on pedophiles and have now compromised half the TOR network of sites including TORmail.

The founder of Freedom Hosting who has been arrested in Ireland and at the time of writing is awaiting extradition to the USA. This individual has been named by the Ireland Independent newspaper as Eric Eoin Marques, 28, with dual Irish and US citizenship. The Independent states an FBI special agent called Mr Marques "the largest facilitator of child porn on the planet."



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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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