Russia and Austria take action against use of Tor

By EDRi · July 30, 2014

Russian government is offering 3,9 million roubles (approximately 85 000 Euro) for a way to identify users transmitting data over the anonymous web browsing system Tor.

The special technology and communications group of the interior ministry published the tender on the government procurement website in July, offering the reward for “research work, Tor cipher”. The tender was modified on 25 July, but various news sources reported that the original description sought for “research work on the possibility to obtain technical information about users (user equipment) of the anonymous network Tor”.

Tor (The Onion Router) is an anonymity network that directs Internet traffic through a worldwide volunteer network that consists of relays, known as nodes, concealing the location and usage details of users, to protect their privacy. It is used for example by journalists and political activists to guarantee the confidentiality of their communications, but can also be used by criminals to hide their tracks from law enforcement. In Russia, the popularity of using Tor has augmented following the recent measures taken by the Russian authorities to tighten their control of social media and online content in general. According to estimates the number of Tor users has increased in the country from 80 000 to 200 000 in July 2014 alone.

“It’s not important if the Russian government is able to block Tor or not. The importance is that they’re sending signals that they are watching this. People will start to be more cautious,”

commented Andrei Soldatov, an expert on surveillance and security services.

“If you take into consideration how much resources the US National Security Agency (NSA) has used on its attempts to crack the network, it’s very unlikely that anyone could find ground-breaking data security vulnerabilities in Tor for such a sum,” said Ville Oksanen, vice chairman of EDRi member Electronic Frontier Finland (Effi). “The request will benefit the Tor network by calling more attention to its problems and thereby also to resolving them.”

Russia’s reward offer is not the only attempt to limit the use of the anonymity network. Instead of seeking to reveal the identities of Tor users, the regional criminal court in Graz, Austria, adopted another approach that could discourage volunteers from supporting the network. On 1 July, it sentenced a man who operated a Tor exit node to three years of probation and to pay 30 000 Euro in court costs and legal fees. The court considered that he had enabled others to conduct illegal activities staying anonymous, while being aware that the possibility of the technical mechanism that he ran could be used for such purposes. He was convicted based on the section 12 of the Austrian penal code which states that “not only the immediate offender commits the offence, but also anyone who intended another to carry it out, or otherwise contributes to the completion of said criminal action”.

“The decision [was] highly depended on the special circumstances of the case and particularly on the statements of the defendant,” said Maximilian Schubert, general secretary of the Austrian association of Internet Service Providers (ISPA). “We are thus positive that it cannot be seen as a general ruling against Tor services.”

Russia offers 3.9m roubles for “research to identify users of Tor” (25.07.2014)

Russian government offers huge reward for help unmasking anonymous Tor users (25.07.2014)

Reward offered by Russia to crack Tor likely to improve the anonymity network, Finnish expert
views (28.07.2014)

Austrian Tor exit node operator found guilty as an accomplice because someone used his node to commit a crime (02.07.2014)

Internet relay op convicted for child porn (05.07.2014)

7 Things You Should Know About Tor (01.07.2014)