Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

The NSA Wants You to Trust Tor, Should You?


In the ongoing drizzle of Snowden revelations the public has witnessed a litany of calls for the widespread adoption of online anonymity tools. One such technology is Tor, which employs a network of Internet relays to hinder the process of attribution. Though advocates at the Electronic Frontier Foundation openly claim that “Tor still works[i]” skepticism is warranted. In fact anyone risking incarceration (or worse) in the face of a highly leveraged intelligence outfit like the NSA would be ill-advised to put all of their eggs in the Tor basket. This is an unpleasant reality which certain privacy advocates have been soft-pedaling.

The NSA Wants You To Use Tor

Tor proponents often make a big deal of the fact that the NSA admits in its own internal documents that “Tor Stinks,” as it makes surveillance more work-intensive[ii]. What these proponents fail to acknowledge is that the spies at the NSA also worry that Internet users will abandon Tor:  “[A] Critical mass of targets use Tor. Scaring them away from Tor might be counterproductive”

Go back and re-read that last sentence. Tor is a signal to spies, a big waving flag that gets their attention and literally draws them to your network traffic[iii]. Certain aspects of Tor might “stink” but ultimately the NSA wants people to keep using Tor. This highlights the fact that security services, like the FBI[iv], have developed sophisticated tools to remove the veil of anonymity that Tor aims to provide.

For example, the Washington Post reports[v]:

“One document provided by Snowden included an internal exchange among NSA hackers in which one of them said the agency’s Remote Operations Center was capable of targeting anyone who visited an al-Qaeda Web site using Tor.”

It’s well known that Tor is susceptible to what’s called a traffic confirmation attack (AKA end-to-end correlation), where an entity monitoring the network traffic on both sides of a Tor session can wield statistical tools to identify a specific communication path. Keep in mind that roughly 90 percent of the world’s internet communication flows through the United States[vi], so it’s easy for U.S. intelligence to deploying this approach by watching data flows around entry and exit points[vii].

Another method involves “staining” data with watermarks. For example, the NSA has been known to mark network traffic by purchasing ad space from online companies like Google. The ads cause web browsers to create a cookie artifact on the user’s computer which identifies the machine viewing the ad[viii]. IP addresses may change but the cookie and its identifiers do not.

De-cloaking Tor users doesn’t necessarily require a federal budget either. According to a couple of researchers slated to speak at Black Hat in a few weeks[ix]:

“In our analysis, we’ve discovered that a persistent adversary with a handful of powerful servers and a couple gigabit links can de-anonymize hundreds of thousands Tor clients and thousands of hidden services within a couple of months. The total investment cost? Just under $3,000.”

Client Network Exploitation (CNE) Trumps Crypto   

Back in 2009 security researcher Joanna Rutkowska implemented what she dubbed the “Evil Maid” attack to foil TrueCrypt’s disk encryption scheme[x]. By compromising the Windows boot environment her team was able to capture the hard disk’s encryption passphrase and circumvent TrueCrypt’s protection. While users can [usually] defend against this sort of monkey business, by relying on a trusted boot process, the success of the Evil Maid attack underscores the capacity for subversion to trump encryption.

This type of client-side exploitation can be generalized for remote network-based operations. In a nutshell, it doesn’t matter how strong your network encryption is if a spy can somehow hack your computer and steal your encryption passphrase (to decrypt your traffic) or perhaps just pilfer the data that they want outright.

Enter the NSAs QUANTUM and FOXACID tag team. QUANTUM servers have the ability to mimic web sites and subsequently re-direct user requests to a second set of FOXACID servers which infects the user’s computer with malware[xi]. Thanks to Ed Snowden it’s now public knowledge that the NSA’s goal is to industrialize this process of subversion (a system codenamed TURBINE[xii]) so it can be executed on an industrial scale. Why go to the effort of decrypting Tor network traffic when spies can infect, infiltrate, and monitor millions of machine at a time?

Is it any wonder that the Kremlin has turned to old-school typewriters[xiii] and that German officials have actually considered a similar move[xiv]? In the absence of a faraday cage even tightly configured air-gapped systems can be breached using clever radio and cellular-based rootkits[xv]. As one user shrewdly commented in an online post[xvi]:

“Ultimately, I believe in security. But what I believe about security leaves me far from the cutting edge; my security environment is more like bearskins and stone knives, because bearskins and stone knives are simple enough that I can *know* they won’t do something I don’t want them to do. Smartphones and computers simply cannot provide that guarantee. The parts of their security models that I do understand, *won’t* prevent any of the things I don’t want them to do.”

Software is hard to trust, there are literally thousands upon thousands of little nooks where a flaw can be “accidentally” inserted to provide a back door. Hardware is even worse.


About a year ago John Young, the operator of the leaks site Cryptome, voiced serious concerns in a mailing list thread about the perception of security being conveyed by tools like Tor[xvii]:

“Security is deception. Comsec a trap. Natsec the mother of secfuckers”

Jacob Appelbaum, who by the way is intimately involved with the Tor project, responded:

“Whatever you’re smoking, I wish you’d share it with the group”

Appelbaum’s cavalier dismissal fails to appreciate the aforementioned countermeasures. What better way to harvest secrets from targets en mass than to undermine a ubiquitous technology that everyone thinks will keep them safe? Who’s holding the shit-bag now? For activists engaged in work that could get them executed, relying on crypto as a universal remedy is akin to buying snake oil. John Young’s stance may seem excessive to Tor promoters like Appelbaum but if Snowden’s revelations have taught us anything it’s that the cynical view has been spot on.

Bill Blunden is an independent investigator whose current areas of inquiry include information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis. He is the author of several books, including The Rootkit Arsenal and Behold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex. Bill is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs.


[i] Cooper Quintin, “7 Things You Should Know About Tor,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, July 1, 2014,

[ii] ‘Tor Stinks’ presentation, Guardian, October 4, 2013,

[iii] J. Appelbaum, A. Gibson, J. Goetz, V. Kabisch, L. Kampf, L. Ryge, “NSA targets the privacy-conscious,”

[iv]Kevin Poulsen, “FBI Admits It Controlled Tor Servers Behind Mass Malware Attack,”

Wired, September 13, 2013,

[v] Barton Gellman, Craig Timberg, and Steven Rich, “Secret NSA documents show campaign against Tor encrypted network,” Washington Post, October 4, 2013

[vi] James Ball, “NSA stores metadata of millions of web users for up to a year, secret files show,” Guardian, September 30, 2013,

[vii] Maxim Kammerer, [tor-talk] End-to-end correlation for fun and profit, August 20, 2007,

[viii] Seth Rosenblatt, “NSA tracks Google ads to find Tor users,” CNET, October 4, 2013,

[ix] Alexander Volynkin &  Michael McCord, “You Don’t Have to be the NSA to Break Tor: Deanonymizing Users on a Budget,” Black Hat USA 2014,

[x] Joanna Rutkowska, “Evil Maid goes after TrueCrypt!” Invisible Things Lab’s Blog, October 16, 2009,

[xi] Bruce Schneier, “Attacking Tor: how the NSA targets users’ online anonymity,” Guardian, October 4, 2013,

[xii] Ryan Gallagher and Glenn Greenwald, “How the NSA Plans to Infect ‘Millions’ of Computers with Malware,” Intercept, March 12, 2014,

[xiii] Chris Irvine, “Kremlin returns to typewriters to avoid computer leaks,” Telegraph, July 11, 2014,

[xiv] Cyrus Farivar, “In the name of security, German NSA committee may turn to typewriters,” Ars Technica, July 14, 2014,

[xv] Jacob Appelbaum, “Shopping for Spy Gear: Catalog Advertises NSA Toolbox,” Der Spiegel, December 29, 2013,

[xvi] “Iron Box Security,” Cryptome, June 6, 2014,

[xvii] “Natsec the Mother of Secfuckers,” Cryptome, June 9, 2013,

Bill Blunden is a journalist whose current areas of inquiry include information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis. He is the author of several books, including “The Rootkit Arsenal” andBehold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex.” Bill is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs and a member of the California State University Employees Union, Chapter 305.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future