The Russian government is offering almost 4 million rubles (about USD $100,000) to anyone who can devise a reliable way to decrypt data sent over the Tor anonymity network. A mounting campaign by the Kremlin against the open Internet, not to mention revelations in the United States about government spying, have made Tor increasingly attractive to Russian Internet users seeking to circumvent state censorship.
Developed as a project of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory more than a decade ago, Tor anonymizes Internet traffic by sending it through a unique configuration of nodes known as an onion routing system. Now in the hands of a nonprofit group, the project continues to receive federal funding but boasts approximately 4 million users worldwide, among them many tech-savvy digital activists in countries where technical censorship and surveillance are prevalent. Even the U.S. State Department supports programs that train foreign political activists to use Tor to protect themselves from the watchful eyes of authoritarian governments.
Tor has encountered problems in Russia before. Indeed, the country’s principal security agency, the FSB, lobbied the Duma last year to ban Tor. Deputies expressed support for the initiative, but it never got out of committee.
Russian Pirate Party leader Stanislav Sharikov says the Russian government’s renewed interest in cracking Tor might have more to do with genuine police concerns than political repression. The $100,000 contract (a relatively small amount of money by global industry standards) is being offered not by the FSB but the Interior Ministry, which according to Sharikov is more interested in fighting child pornography than anti-Putin dissidents.
Of course, Tor is a “dual-use” technology. By providing people with the means to escape censorship and spying, the network is also used by people engaged in organized crime, drug trafficking, and the exchange and sale of child pornography. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden prove that the U.S. National Security Agency has devoted significant resources to hacking Tor, in order to grab personal data about the people who use it.
The U.S. government cites precisely these worrying uses of Tor when justifying its own efforts to decrypt users’ data. But the anonymous nature of the network makes it difficult to know precisely who uses it, and for what, at a global scale.
Although unlikely, should Russia’s decryption project succeed, it could endanger millions of Internet users whose interest in online anonymity is far from nefarious.