Tor is a fantastic onion routing system that has introduced a lot of ideas about strong anonymity and has fostered a good quantity of academic papers. Originally a US Naval Research Laboratory project, it is now a public open source project. In this essay I explore the weaknesses of Tor and how newer projects improve upon this.
Tor provides a leaky abstraction
The original aim of the Tor software was to enable TCP traffic to be transmitted anonymously, enabling already existing Internet applications to simply use Tor as a proxy service. This has never worked properly as the applications that users want have not been designed with Tor in mind.
Early in Tor’s life even simple protocols would not be fully anonymised due to DNS requests not taking place over the Tor connection. This would enable an eavesdropper to infer much about the hosts being accessed. Today Tor users generally use Privoxy to prevent DNS requests leaking, but there are still many application components that do not obey the proxy settings.
Tor is slow
The vast majority of users will never go to the trouble of setting up an intermediate node or exit node. This is a combination of apathy in the face of the additional hassle, and fear of legal retaliation. However a node that takes part in Tor circuits will have more data passing in and out, making traffic analysis more difficult. Therefore users undermine the amount of anonymity they can achieve by only running a client.
As a result, Tor client traffic seems to be growing faster than network capacity is growing. This may ultimately be self-limiting once speed drops to a point where new users lose interest due to the latency being too high to browse. However some users are running Bittorrent over Tor, which is much less latency sensitive but consumes substantial bandwidth. Doing so is considered impolite but there is no systematic way of preventing the network being overloaded by peer-to-peer traffic.
Tor desperately needs a P2P-style tit-for-tat approach to bandwidth so that all users act as relays. The developers defend their ‘why not make everyone a relay’ in their FAQ, but being a relay needs to be the default out of the box and relays should get preferential treatment. This will enable the network to scale far more effectively, so the P2P users are contributing to the network rather than abusing it.
There are too few exit nodes, and many are up to something
Anyone can configure an exit node to only permit certain types of traffic. Some exit nodes only accept traffic on ports that correspond to unencrypted protocols or change SSL certificates. This is downright fishy, and an experienced Tor user would blacklist these exit nodes. Nonetheless, this only catches the most flagrant exit nodes.
The anonymity in the Tor network is dependent on the number of nodes. Traffic analysis attacks are quite possible, depending on how many nodes a single entity has under its control. As a result it is crucial that users are strongly encouraged to run relays and exit nodes to dilute the ability for a motivated organisation to control a large portion of the network.
If an enthusiastic user does decide to run an exit node, he/she will face problems as a result. Although the user is unlikely to face problems from the authorities, an exit node will rapidly have its IP address banned from a wide range of websites that enable user discussion or user generated content. This is a substantial inconvenience.
Exit nodes have in the past recorded the data passing through them. Anything that isn’t end-to-end encrypted can and will be read. One researcher has even published the data he sniffed from his exit node. His research demonstrated that many Tor users don’t understand the extent that Tor protects them. Tor therefore forces users to make the bizarre choice between non-anonymous Internet use with only their ISP logging traffic or somewhat anonymous Internet use with a complete stranger logging their traffic.
This further underlines the point that security is extremely difficult to add retroactively. We need onion routing applications that both the relay data on the anonymised network and run protocols designed specifically for this environment, in one simple package.
Lessons have been learnt from Tor, and newer projects solve much of the problems Tor fix. I2P offers a new platform for writing anonymous applications, and Anomos builds a Bittorrent style P2P network intended to replace standard Bittorrent usage.
I2P: The Invisible Internet Project
I2P is a garlic routing network layer that developers must specifically target. The user does not need to configure applications to ensure anonymity, since all I2P applications have been written with this layer in mind.
I2P does not offer access to the Internet at large (unless a dedicated soul runs a gateway, which is extremely rare) but rather enables developers to build protocols that offer strong anonymity. Already a number of services exist, including eepsites (websites over I2P, analogous to Tor’s hidden services), I2PSnark (a port of Bittorrent) and I2P-Messenger (anonymous instant messaging).
Unlike Tor, I2P nodes all act as relays. The network also favours long lived nodes so a user may have to wait for a little while for his/her system to become a well-used node before his/her traffic is sent at an acceptable speed. This is highly reminiscent of the Bittorrent philosophy. Using this approach seems to be paying dividends in terms of scaling – I2P throughput increased by a factor of 5 during
- This bodes well for the future.
Who is developing I2P? The developers all work under pseudonyms. This may be for fear of legal repercussions, but it’s a sign of faith in the anonymity provided by the project.
Anomos: Anonymous P2P
While I2P offers a Bittorrent service, Anomos goes a step further and is building a onion routing network designed exclusively for Bittorrent. In stark contrast to Tor, Anomos is just one application that handles both the underlying anonymity network and the file transfer protocol.
Anomos therefore scales, is resistant to user misconfiguration and offers a familiar application interface – it looks like a normal Bittorrent client.
Neither I2P nor Anomos have yet received the scrutiny that Tor has, and there are doubtless bugs and weaknesses yet to be exposed. Nonetheless, their fundamental design offers a number improvements over Tor, so I believe they have much potential.
These new projects are seeing slow but steady growth. I believe that file sharing will drive adoption of these new anonymity technologies. We are already seeing users attempting to use Bittorrent with Tor today. It could only take a few large public fines (or a more widespread adoption of the ‘three strike then you’re disconnected’ proposals) alongside a little more press coverage of these newer tools to massively increase adoption. This would be a real game-changer for media companies who would be unable to even threaten those pirating on a large scale. The future looks fascinating.