NSA Surveillance Targets Cambridge-based TOR Project

NSA Surveillance Targets Cambridge-based TOR Project

NSA surveillance targeted privacy software from Cambridge's TOR project

The National Security Agency (NSA) targeted the Cambridge-based TOR Project as well as a server at MIT, a report by German Public Television has revealed. That report included what was said to be the source code for part of the NSA's internet monitoring efforts, code that showed specific interest in TOR and both its projects and users.

TOR's privacy enabling software is designed to mask the source and destination of internet traffic. Originally funded by the US Navy as "The Onion Routing protocol" to help government operatives and employees working in potentially hostile areas, it has come to be used by a wide range of activists, dissidents and journalists around the world. The TOR Project's metrics show that the TOR network is used by over 2 million people each day. The State Department provides funding as part of its "Internet Freedom" initiative to support "counter-censorship and secure communications technology [...] for people facing Internet repression." Other government funding comes from the National Science Foundation and continues from the Department of the Navy. TOR, according to forms filed with the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office, receives up to 60% of its current funding from the federal government.

The source code, for the NSA's XKEYSCORE search system, appear fashioned to detect those actively using TOR, as well as email and web searches that involve TOR. At least some of the rules exempt the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and United Kingdom, the "Five Eyes" countries that are considered close, English speaking allies. Among the specific TOR projects that XKEYSCORE searches for is TAILS, The Amensiac Incognito Live System, a variant of Linux operating system that runs from removable media and leaves no trace of itself on the computer being used after it's shut down. A source code comment calls TAILS a communications security tool "advocated by extremists in extremist forums" and includes in that grouping computing publication The Linux Journal. The MIT server targeted is operated by the Tor Project's leader Roger Dingledine, an MIT alumnus.

After XKEYSCORE was featured in news reports, intelligence officials took pains to assert that it was used for "legitimate foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements that our leaders need for information necessary to protect our nation and its interests."

TOR is a 501c3 charitable organization, located on Temple Street near Central Square. They share office space with Transition House, a domestic violence agency with whom they collaborate on issues of cyberstalking of victims of intimate partner abuse. TOR software can be downloaded here, and the Electronic Freedom Foundation's discussion of its use here.

Disclaimer: The author is a user of TOR software, including for the posting of this story, and is likely to have been caught in the NSA's dragnet surveillance. The author is also a financial supporter of Transition House.

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