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Tor at heart of embassy passwords leak

Popular privacy program (mis)used to spill state secrets

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Tor advertises itself as a means for people and groups to improve their privacy. And when used properly, the distributed, anonymous network does just that. But a Swedish security consultant has used the very same system to gain access to login credentials for a thousand or so individual email addresses, including those of at least 100 accounts belonging to foreign embassies.

Dan Egerstad, who made waves last week posting the login details to embassies belonging to Iran, India, Japan and Russia, among others, has finally identified how he got access to the information.

He says he used software downloaded from the Tor website to configure several servers designed to bounce sensitive traffic around the internet before it ultimately is routed to its destination. The Tor servers try to make it harder to trace the originator of traffic in much the same way an agent under surveillance might quickly drive in and out of a parking garage to throw off pursuers.

Tor has taken pains to warn its users that people running so-called exit nodes - which are the last Tor servers to touch a packet before sending it on its way - "can read the bytes that come in and out there." They go on to say: "This is why you should always use end-to-end encryption such as SSL for sensitive Internet connections."

In all Egerstad appropriated the login details for about 1,000 email accounts, which besides embassy officials, also belonged to employees of powerful companies, including one corporation that does more than $10bn in annual revenue.

"When they're putting in the passwords, I can see everything they're doing," said Egerstad, who attached a packet sniffer to siphon the passwords as they traveled over one of several Tor servers he ran. "I can see what they're surfing."

The posting of 100 official embassy passwords has made Egerstad a pariah in many circles. Publishing information that allows any old criminal to infiltrate sensitive government networks is a touchy thing, and many, including several Reg readers, have denounced it.

Indeed, Egerstad's Deranged Security website was unplugged late last week. His web host said the move was prompted by "American law enforcement officials," who demanded the site be taken down. The web host wouldn't even grant Egerstad access to his HTTP files so he could move them to a different provider. (He has since moved a bare-bones version of the site to a different server.)

But Egerstad remains convinced he did the right thing, saying it was the only way to call attention to problem that Tor officials have already warned about previously.

"Tor has been around for two to three years," he says. "I'm pretty sure these people [who have been exploited] haven't started using it overnight. The question is how many people have set up these servers just to get this information. I'm sure there are hundreds." ®

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