Russian government offers money for Tor-cracking tech

The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) has published a tender offering $111,000 to any Russian company or organization that can provide technology that can de-anonymize users of the Tor anonymity network and decrypt the data sent through it.

The tender, which was published earlier this month, was recently changed to say that the offered money was for research work on the Tor cipher.

“The competition is arranged by the Russian Government ‘in order to ensure the country’s defense and security’,” noted cyber security expert Pierluigi Paganini, a member of the ENISA’s Threat Landscape Stakeholder Group.

“I asked a collegue to help me to translate the original tender […] The tender is about the Tor indeed. The term ‘Scientific Production Association’ is a Soviet/Russian cover word for a military or a KGB/FSB R&D outlet. The one in question belongs to the Interior Ministry which is in charge of police and penitentiary.”

In order to participate in the “competition,” companies have to be based in Russia, have high level security clearance, and have to pay a fee of about $5,555 to get their solutions considered. They have until August 13 to send in their offers.

Originally sponsored by the US Naval Research Laboratory, the development of Tor is still partially backed by the US Department of Defense and other US government agencies.

It’s used across the globe by journalists, political activists and dissidents, users concerned about their privacy, and criminals – anyone who is interested in hiding their identity and that of their contacts on the Internet, and circumventing national censorship efforts. It’s also used by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Tor is used widely in Russia and, earlier this year, a non-specified Russian entity has been spotted eavesdropping nodes at the edge of the Tor network.

While crypto expert Bruce Schneier wonders whether this tender was published by the Russian government in order to gain the technology or simply to make the public believe they haven’t been able to until now, Russian surveillance expert and editor at Agentura.Ru Andrei Soldatov believes that the publication of the tender was meant to send a message.

“It’s not important if the Russian government is able to block Tor or not,” Soldatov commented for The Guardian. “The importance is that they’re sending signals that they are watching this. People will start to be more cautious.”

This news comes in the wake of the passing of a new law in Russia which will require bloggers with over 3,000 readers per day to reveal their identity to and register with the government (it goes in effect in August), and the censorship of several Russian opposition news sites and blogs, which can be consequently reached by Russian readers only via anonymizing services such as Tor.

The Tor Project has recently been hit by unwelcome news about the existence of a bug that can be used to identify Tor users. They are currently working on fixing it. Then, a vulnerability research company has announced that it has found several de-anonymization vulnerabilities in Tails, a security-focused Debian-based Linux distribution that sends its traffic through Tor.

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