Internet 'Cloaking Device': Why Crooks and Cops Both Love TOR

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Runa Sandvik, a TOR developer based in Europe, says the network today is widely used not only by crooks, but by "normal people who want to protect their privacy," including political dissidents in Syria and Iran whose lives depend on their ability to conceal their identities from their governments. Journalists, journalists' sources, and law enforcement itself also use TOR. Witnesses in protection programs use it. So does the U.S. intelligence community and the U.S. military. According to Sandvik, there are approximately 600,000 daily users of the network, most of them in the U.S., Germany and Iran.

She says she understands why people "might not be too happy" that criminals use TOR.

So far, the U.S. government has taken no steps to restrict public access to the network, she says. "We still get our projects funded."

If TOR really can provide perfect anonymity, how did the Feds get around it to bust the Farmers' Market?

Chester Sisniewski, a senior security adviser with Sophos, a security software company, thinks they may not have had to. Farmer's was shipping packages of drugs. That meant there was a physical delivery chain to follow—via UPS or the Post Office, say. Some criminals, says Sisniewski, may have been "stupid enough to be shipping to or from their house."

Others in the ring may have included in their communications some detail--an alias, say, that they might have used years ago to buy a car or to sign up for an online game--that law enforcement could have used to match them to their true identity. Their exposure might thus have been the result of nothing more high tech than what he calls "old fashioned gumshoe work."

It's also possible, he speculates, that somebody might have forgotten to use the anonymizer or pushed the wrong button, thereby sending out an unencrypted message. "TOR isn't the easiest thing in the world to use. It's easy for someone to trip up."

Law enforcement then would have seen the un-cloaked transmission and said: "'Bingo!' He's using TimeWarner Cable, and he's in Manhattan."

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