New Concerns over NSA Targeting Anonymizing Network

Headlines are declaring what some see as the makings of another chapter in the National Security Agency scandal. The NSA may have worked to break into the Tor anonymity network.

James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, published a statement saying the intelligence community seeks to understand how these tools work and the kind of information being concealed.

"In the modern telecommunications era, our adversaries have the ability to hide their messages and discussions among those of innocent people around the world," Clapper said. "They use the very same social networking sites, encryption tools and other security features that protect our daily online activities."

Tor's Good and Bad Uses

We turned to John Shier, a systems engineer at Sophos, to get his thoughts on the headline. He told us Tor relies on your data packets being randomly and anonymously routed through several nodes on the Internet. At its most basic, Tor is made up of an entry node, a relay node and an exit node. Each node is only aware of the next hop in the chain. That safeguards the original sender information.

"Tor is a useful tool for anyone looking to increase their privacy online, much like always paying in cash and turning off GPS or location tracking in your mobile phone -- or ditching the phone altogether -- to name a couple of physical world tactics," Shier said. "Tor is also no different than any other openly available service or tool. It can be used for good and bad, like SEO."

As Shier sees it, the fact that the NSA -- and its many collaborators -- would be interested in such a service should come as no shock. Not only do well-intentioned people, such as privacy advocates and researchers, use Tor but so can copyright thieves, activists, dissidents, reformists, cyber-criminals, terrorists, and the like....

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