The use of Tor has been subject to diverse reactions from governments. The relationship between Tor and governments is especially complex since Tor is being used not only by private citizens seeking more privacy but also by other entities, ranging from states to organized crime groups.
It is a well-known fact that the Tor Project non-profit organization is being supported by several private and public entities and governments. In fact, Tor was originally designed, implemented, and deployed as a third-generation onion routing project of the Naval Research Laboratory. It was originally developed with the U.S. Navy in mind with the principal goal of protecting government communications and is even today used by a wide variety of state entities such as the military and law enforcement. Even today, government officials suggest that government officials help develop the network by informing Tor about possible bugs or other aspects in Tor that need to be fixed.
Government support is also evident in terms of funding Tor. Active sponsors in 2013 included the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Defense, with federal awards amounting to $1.8 million. While in 2012, the part of the income that was US Government based amounted to 60%. The Tor project has publicly called for additional contributions to diversify the source of sponsorship and insisted on not having a backdoor to Tor.
At the same time, there are examples of countries that openly suppress Tor. For instance, China has outlawed the use of Tor and has blocked access to Tor entrance nodes, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are both blocking Tor’s website, as is Iraq.
Other countries go further than that. Although not officially confirmed, the NSA has been reported to have made repeated attempts to develop attacks against individuals using Tor. In 2013, it was suggested that while leaked documents confirm that the NSA does indeed operate and collect traffic from some nodes in the Tor network, there is no further information as to how many nodes are being controlled and whether the proposed de-anonymization technique was ever implemented. Some sources claim that the ‘NSA tracks users who are believed to live outside the US and who request Tor bridge information via e-mail or search for or download Tor, or the TAILS live operating system.’ Some leaked documents argue that it would be ‘counterproductive’ to ‘scare’ the critical mass of targets that are using Tor away from it. Other commentators believe that US efforts to target or undermine Tor would raise legal concerns for national intelligence agencies, especially concerning whether ‘the NSA has acted, deliberately or inadvertently, against internet users in the US when attacking Tor.’
Other countries have also proposed measures to challenge the anonymity enabled by Tor. An example is Russia which, with the aim ‘to ensure the country’s defense and security, has openly offered an award of $110,000 to anyone able to crack the identities of users of the Tor network.
In a recent development, EUROPOL announced in 2014 the takedown of ‘more than 410 hidden services’, the numbers later being corrected to 27 websites. There is little information on how law enforcement managed to ‘break Tor’ and identify the users behind these hidden services. Other than that, the methods were not revealed because they were ‘sensitive.’ The servers located in a foreign country were accessed and ‘imaged.’ The Tor project speculates that the number of takedowns and the seizure of Tor relays could mean that the Tor network was attacked with the purpose to reveal the location of those hidden services, as has been attempted before when a group of Tor relays was ‘actively trying to break the anonymity of users by making changes to the Tor protocol headers associated with their traffic over the network.’ While some of the servers that were taken down were clearly related to illegal activities such as selling drugs, they allegedly also included several acting as infrastructure for Tor’s anonymizing network. The unanswered question of how these services were located will hopefully be answered in court when prosecuting the arrested suspects. Needless to say, illegally obtained evidence may be found inadmissible in court.
In the context of international law, if a state is accessing servers located on foreign territory and taking them down, it requires either the consent of the other state or other grounds under international law such as a convention or customary law. Additional legal issues may arise if the targeted servers are innocent bystanders who are not connected with the investigation. Such activities may also be criminal under the state’s law on whose territory the servers were located.