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Fancy $110,000? Easy! Just be Russian and find a way of cracking Tor

It looks like Russia is looking for a way to crack down on those who try to hide their activities from law enforcement agencies and government censors.

The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) has announced that it is offering prize money totalling nearly four million rubles ($114,000) to anyone who can find a way to identify normally anonymous Tor users.

Tor, of course, was originally developed by the United States as a way of helping people access the internet anonymously, and without fear of censorship – using a volunteer network of thousands of computers to conceal the users’ location and activity online.

It can certainly help protect your privacy, and keep your internet communications confidential, but it’s a thorn in the side of law enforcement agencies around the globe who wish to keep track of users’ online antics.

Although there are those who use Tor for clearly criminal purposes, there are also plenty of law-abiding citizens who simply value their right to remain anonymous on the net, or who are censored from accessing the wider internet, or are concerned that oppressive regimes might look unkindly on them expressing anything that the-powers-that-be consider “unhelpful”.

According to The Guardian, Tor’s popularity more than doubled in June following the introduction of a “bloggers law” that required sites with more than 3000 daily visitors to register with the government.

Legislation like that makes it easier for Moscow to monitor who is saying what online.

It’s perhaps no wonder then that the Russian government is looking to find ways to minimise the usefulness of Tor.

But before you order a pepperoni pizza and put your thinking cap on about how to reveal Tor users’ identities, there’s some small print that you need to be aware of.

Firstly, the MVD’s competition is only open to Russian citizens. Presumably that’s a stipulation because the last thing they want is someone to blab about how to crack Tor to – lord help us – another country’s law enforcement agency.

Secondly. the competition isn’t free to enter. In fact, it will cost you about $5,500 to apply to take part. As Gizmodo reports, that could instantly prevent many from participating as it’s approximately half of the typical Russian’s annual income.

Finally, there’s something else to consider. Maybe someone else has already worked out how to crack Tor.

Just last week, the Black Hat security conference announced that a talk entitled “You Don’t Have to be the NSA to Break Tor: Deanonymizing Users on a Budget” was not going to be presented after all.

I don’t know if that paper’s author – Alexander Volynkin – has Russian citizenship or not, but it would certainly cause a bemused eyebrow to be raised if he did.

About the author


Graham Cluley is an award-winning security blogger, researcher and public speaker. He has been working in the computer security industry since the early 1990s, having been employed by companies such as Sophos, McAfee and Dr Solomon's. He has given talks about computer security for some of the world's largest companies, worked with law enforcement agencies on investigations into hacking groups, and regularly appears on TV and radio explaining computer security threats.

Graham Cluley was inducted into the InfoSecurity Europe Hall of Fame in 2011, and was given an honorary mention in the "10 Greatest Britons in IT History" for his contribution as a leading authority in internet security.