Two Sides of the Argument: For Every Snowden there’s a Dread Pirate Rogers


Connected People in NetworkThe battle between the civil rights to privacy against the rights of society to protect itself shows no signs of abating, with the FBI saying that they are concerned about Google and Apple’s move to encrypted data by default. Unfortunately, we created file systems and file content types which had little thought on keeping things private, and where systems are often viewed as stand-along machines. We also created an Internet which is full of the same protocols that we used in the days of text terminals and mainframe computers, where users typed in commands to access data, and where there was little thought about protecting the data as it is stored, analysed and transmitted. As we are increasingly move mobile, we are now carrying around our sensitive data, that at one time was protected behind physical firewalls, and the risks to our data increases by the day. To overcome this, Apple have just released their file encryption system for iOS 8, and Google plan to do the same for the next version of Android.

The FBI, though, see the status quo as a way of investigating criminals and terrorists, but can see this opportunity reducing with encryption-by-default, such as with the file encryption system used in Apple’s iOS 8. With iOS 8, there is no encryption keys, and thus the encryption method breaches current laws, which force users to reveal their encryption keys when requested by law enforcement investigators. This would mean that users may be breaching current laws in both the US and the UK. The same battle too exists with Tor, where law enforcement are scared that crime can go un-noticed, whereas privacy advocates promote the rights of privacy of using Tor. There is thus a battle ranging from the file system to the data transmitted over the Internet.

The following outlines some key features in disk encryption:

Exception to the 5th Ammendment Right

In the UK, citizens have the right to silence (a Fifth Amendment Right in the US – related to the right against self-incrimination) but there is an exception to this related to encryption keys, and the failure to reveal encryption keys can often be seen as a sign that someone has something to hide, and is covered by Section 49 of RIPA. The move by Apple and Google may thus breach law as they must be able to hand-over their encryption key when required. This was highlighted in 2014 when Christopher Wilson, from Tyne and Wear was jailed when he refused to hand encrypted passwords related to investigations related to an attack on the Northumbria Police and the Serious Organised Crime Agency’s websites. He handed over 50 encrypted passwords, but none of these worked, so a judge ordered him to provide the correct one, but after failing to do this, he received a jail sentence of six months.

In 2012, Syed Hussain and three other men, were jailed for discussing an attack on a TA headquarters using a home-made bomb mounted on a remotely controlled toy car. Syed, who admitted have terrorist sympathises, was jailed for an additional four months for failing to hand-over a password for a USB stick.

The opposing sides

As we move into an Information Age, there is a continual battle on the Internet between those who would like to track user activities, to those who believe in anonymity. The recent Right to be forgotten debate has shown that very little can be hidden on the Internet, and deleting these traces can be difficult. The Internet, too, can be a place where crime can thrive through anonymity, so there is a continual tension between the two sides of the argument, and, overall, no-one has a definitive answer to say which is correct.

To investigation agencies the access to Internet-based information can provide a rich source of data for the detection and investigation of crime, but they have struggled against the Tor (The Onion Network) network for over a decade. Its usage has been highlighted over the years, such as when, in June 2013, Edward Snowden, used it to send information on PRISM to the Washington Post and The Guardian. This has prompted many government agencies around the World to prompt their best researchers to target cracking it, such as recently with the Russian government offering $111,000.

At the core of Tor is its Onion Routing, which uses subscriber computers to route data packets over the Internet, rather than use publically available routers. One thing that must be said is that Tor aims to tunnel data through public networks, and keep the transmission of the data packets safe, which is a similar method that Google uses when you search for information (as it uses the HTTPS protocol for the search).

The battle of the Gods

fotolia_1499904With the right to be anonymous at its core, the Tor project created a network architecture which anonymized both the source of network and the identity of users. With some many defence agencies around the World targeting Tor, the cracks have been starting to be exposed, in the same way that there has been on the targeting of OpenSSL and TrueCrypt. For this researchers identified an underlying flaw in Tor’s network design, and which has led the Tor Project has warned that an attack on the anonymity network could have revealed user identities.

This message was in response to the work of two researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (Alexander Volynkin and Michael McCord) who exploited the infrastructure. At present SEI has a Defense Department until June 2015, and is worth over $110 million a year, with a special target on finding security vulnerabilities.

Overall the attacks ran from January 2014, and were finally detected and stopped on 4 July 2014. In response to the vulnerability being found the Tor team, in a similar way to the OpenSSL Heartbleed announcement, where informed that the researchers were to give a talk at the Black Hat hacker conference in Las Vegas. The sensitives around the area is highlight by the fact that the talk was cancelled, due to neither the university nor SEI (Software Engineering Institute) approving the talk. The Tor project, through Roger Dingledine blog entry on 4 July 2014, revealed that identities could have been revealed over the period of the research.


The Web traces a wide range of information, including user details from cookies, IP addresses, and even user behaviour (with user fingerprints). This information be used to target marketing to users, and also is a rich seem of information for the detection and investigation of crime. The Tor network has long been a target of defence and law enforcement agencies, as it protects user identity and their source location, and is typically known as the dark web, as it is not accessible to key search engines such as Google. Obviously Tor could be used to bind to a server, so that the server will only talk to a client which has been routed through the Tor network, which would mean than search engines will not be able to find the content on them. This is the closed model in creating a Web which cannot be accessed by users on the Internet, and only by those using Tor. If then users trade within the dark web servers with Bitcoins, there will be little traces of their transactions.

With the Tor network, the routing is done using computers of volunteers around the world to route the traffic around the Internet, and with ever hop the chances to tracing the original source becomes reduces. In fact, it is rather like a pass-the-parcel game, where game players randomly pass to others, but where eventually the destination receiver will eventually receive the parcel. As no-one has marked the parcel on its route, it’s almost impossible to find out the route that the parcel took.

The trace of users access Web servers is thus confused with non-traceable accesses. This has caused a range of defence agencies, including the NCA and GCHQ, to invest methods of compromising the infrastructure, especially to uncover the dark web. A strange feature in the history of Tor is that it was originally sponsored by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (which had been involved in onion routing), and its first version appeared in 2002, and was presented to the work by Roger Dingledine, Nick Mathewson, and Paul Syverson, who have since been named, in 2012, as one of Top 100 Global Thinkers. It since received funding from Electronic Frontier Foundation, and is now developed by The Tor Project, which is a non-profit making organisation.

Thus, as with the Rights to remain private, there are some fundamental questions that remain, and it a target for many government around the World. In 2011, it was awarded the Free Software Foundation’s 2010 Award for Projects of Social Benefit for:

"Using free software, Tor has enabled roughly 36 million people around the world to experience 
freedom of access and expression on the Internet while keeping them in control of their privacy 
and anonymity. Its network has proved pivotal in dissident movements in both Iran and more recently 

Figure 1 shows a Web browser application setup for Tor. It uses onion routing and also the HTTPS protocol to secure the accesses. With Tor, too, the path between the two communicating hosts is also encrypted, which creates a tunnel between them. To focuses more on the security of the communication over the Internet, and less on the preserving the anonymity of the user. It is, though, often used for proxy accesses to systems, where a user wants to hide their access.

newFigure 1: Tor Web browser

Silk Road

One of the first of large-scale illegal uses on Dark Web was Silk Road (created Feb 2011) by “Dread Pirate Rogers” and which was used to trade drugs on-line. In June 2011 it was pin-pointed by chatter on the Internet and for increases in Web traffic, and was taken down by the DEA and Department of Justice in the US. It has since resurfaced as Silk Road 2.0, with other similar sites appearing, along with encrypted versions of the code from the site being created so that the site can be distributed to other places, if it is taken down. This approach is equivalent to self-healing Web sites, where the re-build themselves when they are attacked. In this case, a human helper will normally be involved in re-creating the site.

While Tor had been created for all the best of reasons, from another point-of-view, it can be seen as a place that criminals can build their businesses in the Cloud, and provide a place where there can be few traces left of their activities. Overall it’s an impossible debate to say exact which is the right approach. From a law enforcement point-of-view, there are problems in investigating sites bound into the Tor network, but it also it is also a place where citizens have the rights to privacy.


With data breaches rising by the day, such as with 150 million passwords cracked with the Adobe infrastructure and over 120 million credit card details skimmed for Home Depot and Target, Apple and Google feel they have to build up trust with their users in their operating system. For this they are looking at encryption-by-default, where they encrypt file data (which is now stored on flash memory), and which now may breach the laws around reveal encryption keys. At one time, investigators could extract the memory from the device, and decode its contents, but without encryption keys this will be difficult. While Google and Apple have not responded to the dilemma, there could be the opportunities for them to work with the companies to overcome of the issues, which might reduce privacy settings on their data. Unfortunately if they do reduce the security on the encrypted data, they may leave open opportunities for others to learn the methods, and compromise the whole system. In a corporate market, Microsoft BitLocker is one of the most popular methods used for complete disk encryption. With this, there is always the back-door input into the encrypted data, by storing the encryption keys within the domain controller for the company.

As yet, Google or Apple have not made any comments about the issues that they encrypted file system could cause mobile phone users.

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