Russian authorities have made a concerted series of announcements regarding the future of online anonymising software Tor for the country’s 143 million residents, who constitute Tor’s third largest user-base – concluding that it has none.
On 5th February Leonid Levin, Chairman of the Duma Committee on Information Policy, Information Technologies and Communications, proposed to consider limiting access to anonymising networks such as Tor and VPNs. Speaking at the ironically-named Infoforum 2015, Levin said [Russian language] that international tensions and the increase of technological, international crime “forces us to invest significant additional funds to the armed forces and to law enforcement agencies. Though this is justifiable, it does not result in effective information control,”
Levin also opined that restricting access to de-identifying networks and process would “increase opportunities to counter the commercial distribution of malware” and also help to impede access to “forbidden” information.
Shortly after Vadim Ampelonsky, the press secretary of Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media), released a statement [Russian language] of support for Levin’s stance on Tor, claiming that the technological obstacles to blocking The Onion Router’s obfuscation protocols are “difficult, but solvable,”
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On February 9th the formidably-powered Safe Internet League, which consists of Russia’s state telecom company Rostelecom and two other major mobile providers, came out in unity against Tor [Russian language]. Spokesman Denis Davydov said: “We strongly support the idea of limiting Russia’s access to anonymous networks, including Tor. The ‘Invisible’ Internet has made it possible for offenders of all kinds to hide their intentions from the state and use it to commit crimes: acquiring drugs and weapons, distributing child pornography, trafficking in human beings – including sex slaves – and leading political struggle. Do not forget that Tor was developed and is used by Americans, including US intelligence agencies, to expand the hegemony of the United States around the world,”
Davydov went on to say that banning anonymising networks would increase user-trust among the Russian people and lead to economic benefits, having described Tor as an ‘Anonymous network used primarily to commit crimes’.
Roskomnadzor already maintains a government blacklist of forbidden sites, updates to which are regularly circulated to network providers, who are then obliged to block the domains.
Interestingly one of the most articulate and outraged voices on the new Russian assault on Tor comes from the online gambling community, long-since blacklisted by Russian authorities, which relies on the use of Tor and VPNs to maintain its user-base in Russia. According to them, “The odds of Roskomnadzor breaking Tor is about as likely as your $5 Spin & Go landing on a $1 million jackpot,”
The difficulty of blocking the correct network packets to filter out a specific protocol are considerable, particularly when it is double-encrypted, such as when Tor is used in combination with a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Notwithstanding that, researchers Philipp Winter and Stefan Lindskog of Karlstad University published a revealing paper [PDF] in 2012 disclosing how the Chinese authorities ran its own Tor exit node in order to harvest IP addresses which would then be blacklisted. Though Tor’s obfuscation techniques are supposed to mask the end-user’s IP address, there are effective techniques for well-resourced governments to use to circumvent this protection.