The Onion Router (better known as Tor*) is one of the favorite tools of the scum of the Internet. Thieves, terrorists, child pornographers, drug dealers, and more all love to use Tor (and Bitcoin) to run their operations.
Fortunately the creeps and their software aren’t very good at this, because the FBI is blowing open holes int he whole system to catch child pornographers.
You see, the idea behind Tor is that it’s an encrypted network that hides criminal activity. Much as how “money laundering” is an operation that tries to hide where dirty money is going to and from, Tor is a “data laundering” service that sends the data of every user into a giant washing machine, mixing everything up. The idea is you can’t really tell which Tor user is requesting which websites, even if you monitor the entire borders of the Tor network.
However the FBI used some neat tricks (which honestly it’s terribly irresponsible for The Register to be promoting, but now it’s out there). When it took down one child pornography website, it took over the site, and put up some content on the site that caused the users to signal their IP addresses and possibly other identifying information to the FBI. Thus they were able to find out who the users are who were part of this child pornography ring.
I’m assuming similar tricks have been used in the past on other Tor networks that were mysteriously busted up. Which is great, but now that the problem is known, people are going to try to patch up this hole.
Ultimately we may simply have to ban Tor, because the cost to society is too great, and the benefits too slight. Note that the use is overwhelmingly in the US and western Europe, meaning the hypothetical Chinese dissidents using it are a myth.
* Tor probably took over as the popular name, because ‘Tor’ means ‘Gate’ in German, and there are a lot of Tor servers run in Germany.
Image by Stefano.desabbata, Wikipedia