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So we all know that NSA has the ability to track down Tor, I2P and all those anonymous networks. I know it's a piece of old news, but the question always shows up in my mind. Which is why bother it? I mean all your communication is encrypted through public key cryptography even through the simplest HTTPS connection, so apparently, they can't see what you're sending through the network. So unless you're visiting know illegal website, they shouldn't be able to track you down isn't it.

Like if you're talking with your friend through FB's Messenger, let's say. There's so much traffic in and out through FB's servers, how would they be possible to identify that this traffic is between you and server and then track you down to your location by the IP exploit from the connection (as it's one of the few stuff that isn't encrypted).

If that's true, then why bother if NSA has the ability to de-anonymize Tor network. Or even simpler, why should you use Tor network there isn't any difference between standard HTTPS anymore? Plus, they still can't identify you out from that pool of connection through FB server and with a Tor it might even standout from theirs view.

  • "you use Tor network there isn't any difference between standard HTTPS anymore". This is simply not true. You should check out EFF's nice interactive graphic on this: eff.org/pages/tor-and-https It also tells you how you always need to consider multiple thread actors/models. – rugk Apr 24 at 20:49
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“So we all know that NSA has the ability to track down Tor, I2P and all those anonymous networks.”

Actually we know nothing of the kind. Tor was originally TOR (The Onion Network) and was developed by U.S. Naval Research Labs (NRL) specifically to provide a mechanism that was both secure and anonymous against nation state level threats. Since then it has been maintained and enhanced by The Tor Project, Inc, a nonprofit since 2006.

“Which is why bother it? I mean all your communication is encrypted through public key cryptography even through the simplest HTTPS connection, ...”

In the modern digital world, secure encryption is easy but protecting content is not the primary threat mechanism. The main problem and the hard problem is protecting attribution. Knowing that “A” talked to “B” is powerful information, even though it’s commonly disparaged as merely meta-data. Examples are legion and include political activists, whistle blowers, or merely private information such as contacting for information on HIV or abortion or the hot topic of your choice.

“There's so much traffic in and out through FB's servers, how would they be possible to identify that this traffic is between you and server and then track you down to your location by the IP exploit from the connection...”

Traffic volume means nothing, this is exactly what computers do really well! Ask yourself how FB tracks and links all those individual connections? Every connection has a “TO” and “FROM” identifier. Tracking it requires nothing more that speed, it’s the very essence of how everything works.

“Or even simpler, why should you use Tor network there isn't any difference between standard HTTPS anymore?”

There is a huge difference! Without going into a lot of detail, Tor uses multiple relays in multiple countries, changing “TO and “FROM” wrappers at each relay. Unlike a VPN, at no point does an individual Tor node know both endpoints of a connection. The server doesn’t know your IP address, only that of the last (exit) Tor Node.

It’s important to note that Tor provides a secure and anonymous transport mechanism. If you use it to log into a known entity like FB, you are announcing your identity. Tor is not magic, if you provide identifiers (cookies), the anonymity of transport becomes irrelevant.

  • Actually, you don't need to go into details. EFF has a very nice and interactive graphic that easily summarizes everything about Tor vs HTTPS: eff.org/pages/tor-and-https – rugk Apr 24 at 20:51
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You are missing a part of the equation.

Using HTTPS, the traffic between you and the destination server is protected from snooping and alteration, but you know the identity of the server, and the server knows yours. If you post something the government considers a crime, the server may be compelled to give them your identity. On the other hand, if the server hosts something the government does not approve, they can be shutdown. HTTPS will not protect any of you here.

That's how Tor is different: if you are using the Tor network to browse the web, the server does not know who you are. The IP address in their logs don't belong to you, but to a Tor Exit Relay. If any government goes after that IP, they will end up having the address of this relay, and the node operators even have a response template to answer to any DCMA inquiry.

On the server side, if the server is hosted using Tor Onion Service (formerly Hidden Service), the IP address of the server is unknown. Unless there are some misconfiguration on the software running on the server, they are invisible on the public internet and are only reachable inside the Tor Network. Their ISP would know the computer were using the Tor network, but not know what server was there.

Being able to unmask the real address either of a client or a server is a big deal here. According to Tor Project:

Individuals use Tor to keep websites from tracking them and their family members, or to connect to news sites, instant messaging services, or the like when these are blocked by their local Internet providers. Tor's onion services let users publish web sites and other services without needing to reveal the location of the site. Individuals also use Tor for socially sensitive communication: chat rooms and web forums for rape and abuse survivors, or people with illnesses.

Journalists use Tor to communicate more safely with whistleblowers and dissidents. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) use Tor to allow their workers to connect to their home website while they're in a foreign country, without notifying everybody nearby that they're working with that organization.

Imagine you are a dissident posting something against your Middle Eastern government and they can unmask your IP. Or a homosexual on a Muslin country. Or host a server providing a community for those people. If anyone can unmask your IP from inside the Tor Network, you could die, or people connected to you could die too.

Tor is not for protecting your connection data from being snooped on, but protect yourself from being identified.

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For one, you may care about the attacker (government?) knowing about which sites you access. Sure it may not be such an issue in the US right now but there are countries where just visiting western news/info sites to get real information instead of propaganda could get you into trouble (not that news can be trusted these days but that is another issue).

The second reason for caring is that an attacker able to de-anonymize your tor traffic can usually somehow compromise the server you are communicating with. The US government (NSA, ...) could just serve Facebook with a sealed warrant and force them to record everything you write and turn it over to them. Here anonymity can help a lot.

Another reason is that you may not trust the site you are connecting to in the first place. Most sites these days harvest your data and make little to no effort to secure it from leaks. You may even want to access sites, that are outright sketchy and/or don't support HTTPS, for various reasons - whether curiosity, research or other legitimate need.

Lastly, the NSA and others always had the ability to just plant a bug in your house, send agents to follow you etc. It is not about preventing them from doing their jobs. It is about making sure it is not easy for them to just follow and violate everyone's privacy instead of just serious suspects. Even if the NSA can de-anonymize Tor, making them work for it is important. Furthermore, it can still protect you from many other less sophisticated attackers, that may not have the same capabilities as the NSA (arguably the top cyber-intelligence agency in the world).

  • Totally agree for other three points except for the second one, you point out compromise the server you're connecting, but to compromise that means they already know your IP (and where you at). The point is right, but how about they're now lost track of you and want to find your location through reading your IP? – Andrew.Wolphoe Apr 21 at 14:28
  • I am not sure what are you asking right now? Could you please rephrase your question? – Peter Harmann Apr 21 at 17:16
  • Actually the point is nice, no need to change it. You just haven’t explain I the attacker is able to track down your location through meta data. But that’s fine – Andrew.Wolphoe Apr 21 at 23:15
  • @Andrew-at-TW , if you log on to a.com with a pseudonym, you are no longer anonymous, and all activities from that Tor session can be deanonymized and associated with that ID. If you establish a predictable pattern of logging in to a.com first, then b.com, then c.com, they may not even need your login to deanonymize your traffic. – John Deters Apr 22 at 11:19
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    @Andrew-at-TW identifying and tracking are two different things. I could track your behavior and your surfing without learning your name, but if I learn your name anywhere along the route, I can assign all that behavior back to anywhere you left your fingerprints. – John Deters Apr 23 at 13:23
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When user connects to a website, server may log user IP. Any actions are connected to this IP, so user may be tracked if server operator wants.

  • As I'm talking about de-anonymize, we're supposing both your server and client isn't exposing anything or tracking you, the attackers are trying to track you down by information accessible by the public. – Andrew.Wolphoe Apr 21 at 13:34
  • @Andrew-at-TW , you haven’t described your threat model well enough. Is it a Facebook employee? An employer’s WiFi? Coffee shop attacker? Family member? Random stranger? Government agency? Police? Foreign power? ISP? All these attackers have various capabilities that could mean different answers to your question. – John Deters Apr 21 at 23:57
  • @JohnDeters Looking as highest capability threat (which should be NSA I think), I’m supposing the largest threat you can get. – Andrew.Wolphoe Apr 22 at 8:51

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