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Deluded Tor users helped right wrongs

Giving something back through ignorace
Wed Jun 02 2010, 17:24

MISINFORMED USERS may have helped website Wikileaks to amass its library of government injustices.

The site, which recently garnered mainstream media coverage for its release of a graphic video showing a US Army attack that led to the deaths of 12 people, reportedly accumulated its initial arsenal of documents from the 'anonymous' Tor network.

The claim was made by Wikileak's activist Julian Paul Assange, while talking to The New Yorker magazine, when he said that the organisation used Tor to obtain a sizable cache of documents prior to the its website launch. This in turn went on to help the group attract a steady stream of news  scoops that helped Wikileaks present itself as a credible organisation to the world at large.

Not surprisingly, Assange's claims have raised a few eyebrows, especially among users who falsely believed\ Tor afforded them perfect anonymity, simply by installing a plug-in on a browser.

Tor has long been mooted, incorrectly, as some sort of Internet anonymiser, when in fact it isn't. Tor is an implementation of an Onion Router, a system that provides obfuscation of a packet's origin within its 'network'. However as one Tor administrator wrote after lambasting the equally ignorant traditional press, once past the final Tor endpoint, users are back on the open Internet.

Those endpoints are the Achilles heel of the Tor network, and the Tor administrators work hard to debunk many of the common fallacies published about the network. Their efforts are largely in vain thanks to users being blinded by statements of anonymity, which relate to traffic before and during its transit in the Tor network but not after it leaves the final Tor endpoint.

To that end, when a Tor administrator said that "education is just as important" to privacy, he is absolutely correct. A distinction needs to be made between anonymity and privacy. Tor provides a way of obfuscating the origin of packets, however data in those packets are still transferred without encryption through the network.

As users, thanks to websites such as Wikileaks, become increasingly aware of privacy, it is hoped that Assange's statement will finally start to encourage users to take responsible actions rather than passing the buck.

The legality of Wikileaks' actions is up for debate, with many in power more than happy to see the site fall on its own sword, However Assange's disclosure should be seen as damning indictment of the careless behaviour of those who were supposedly trying to hide sensitive documents.

For those who do feel the need to use systems such as Tor, it is vital that any notion of blanket anonymity and security are quashed, prior to using them. Only when users take responsibility of their own actions will Tor and other tools like it become ruly useful systems.

Ironically, the upshot of Assange's statement could be that it becomes notably harder for his organisation to obtain the very documents that helped obtain justice for others. µ


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