Seizure of the directory authorities could block the Tor network

Pierluigi Paganini December 23, 2014

The Tor network could be seriously impacted by the seizure of directory authorities operated by law enforcement, despite it is a precious resource for all.

The overall architecture of Tor network relies on nine directory authorities locate in the Europe and United States. The servers working as directory authorities provide a signed list of all the relays of the Tor network. Experts at Tor Project explained that an attack to these servers can “incapacitate” the overall architecture of Tor.

“The Tor Project has learned that there may be an attempt to incapacitate our network in the next few days through the seizure of specialized servers in the network called directory authorities.” Tor Project leader Roger Dingledine explained in a blog post.

“We are taking steps now to ensure the safety of our users, and our system is already built to be redundant so that users maintain anonymity even if the network is attacked. Tor remains safe to use,” “We hope that this attack doesn’t occur; Tor is used by many good people.”

The experts explain that this kind of attack could have the primary target to sabotage the Tor network, anyway they are not effective to de-anonymize Tor users. Directory authorities “don’t known anything about what particular Tor users are doing.” so even if an attacker compromise them could not track users. Someone would have to seize at least five of the directory authorities in order to force Tor clients to connect other relays.

directory authorities Tor network 2

Experts speculated that the recent investigation conducted by the FBI on the cyber attack against Sony Pictures could culminate in the seizure of the Directory authorities. According to a report from HP, the members of GOP collective used the Tor Network to hide their identities.

“The attackers appear to have used TOR exit nodes and VPNs to help cover their tracks, which indicates some awareness of operational security (OPSEC).” states the report issued by HP.

Other suspicions about a possible involvement of law enforcement are refuted by the declaration of Thomas White, a technician who runs a large Tor exit node cluster and a collection of mirrors. Mr. White reported have lost control of his servers on Sunday, probably due to the operation of law enforcement.

“Tonight there has been some unusual activity taking place and I have now lost control of all servers under the ISP and my account has been suspended. Having reviewed the last available information of the sensors, the chassis of the servers was opened and an unknown USB device was plugged in only 30-60 seconds before the connection was broken. From experience I know this trend of activity is similar to the protocol of sophisticated law enforcement who carry out a search and seizure of running servers.”

These activities are threatening Tor network that isn’t a prerogative of the cybercrime. Don’t forget that the Tor network provides a safe network from surveillance and censorship for millions of people who live in repressive regimes.

“Every person has the right to privacy. This right is a foundation of a democratic society”

The recent attacks run against Tor by unknown entities, researchers and law enforcement are contributing to fuel distrust in one of the best anonymizing tool.

Last month, the operation Onymous run by law enforcement authorities in the United States and Europe shut down 410 Tor hidden services hosting criminal  marketplaces. The operation was a significant success in the fight to cybercrime, but raised many concerns in the Tor community, who wonders how the police have localized operators

Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs –  Tor network, hacking, directory authorities)

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