Russia offers $111,000 to help crack online anonymity network

Russia’s Interior Ministry is offering $111,000 to anyone able to help it find ways to get data on users of Tor, the anonymous website surfing network.

The push comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin took steps to strengthen regulations on Internet data. Just this week, Putin introduced a new law that requires Internet companies to store Russian user information on data centers in the country. Critics said the law aims to tamp down criticism of the government on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

The Kremlin described the move as “improving the management of personal data of Russian citizens on computer networks.”

Tor’s popularity stems from the fact that it routes and encrypts Internet traffic through thousands of relays worldwide, giving users unrivaled anonymity. Because of its effectiveness, Tor usage in the former Soviet nation has grown exponentially in recent months. According to the Moscow Times, as many as 200,000 Russian Internet users were using the anonymous network in June 2014.

Russia isn’t the only country targeting Tor. According to a report by German broadcasters NDR and WDR, searching Google for the word “anonymity” or even downloading the Tor browser can attract the attention of the National Security Agency (NSA). The possibility was revealed after a group of journalists and activists reportedly reviewed the source code for XKeyScore, the agency’s mass surveillance tool.

Curiously, Tor was born out of the United States Naval Research Laboratory for the purpose of “protecting government communications” and is still partially used by the Navy, according to the Tor project’s website.

Tor has also come under attack from academics. Michael McCord and Alexander Volynkin, two researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, were slated to give a presentation entitled “You Don’t Have to Be the NSA to Break Tor” at the upcoming Black Hat Conference — one of the most popular security trade shows in the world.

McCord and Volynkin planned to argue it’s possible to reveal the identity of thousands of Tor users for roughly $3,000. The presentation, however, was cancelled after Carnegie Mellon lawyers notified the conference that the researchers had not received permission to publicly reveal their work.

At the recent Hackers on Planet Earth conference (HOPE X), Steve Rambam, a private investigator, gave a presentation entitled “You’ve Lost Privacy, Now They’re Taking Anonymity” (aka Whistleblowing is Dead— Get Over it). Given the recent efforts against Tor, he might not be wrong.