Tor, Freedom Hosting, TorMail, Firefox and recent events

So, there’s been…. a lot of panic in the Tor community over the last 24 hours. Let’s have a look at some facts shall we?

Firstly, it would be good if you knew some basics of Tor – I have a previous article on it here. Secondly, forgive the number of Reddit Comments I’ve linked to – but given the lack of mass media coverage of this news, there’s not much choice)

News broke that the FBI had issued an arrest warrant and extradition request to Ireland for Eric Marques. The article frames him as a large distributor of Child Abuse Images. Whether that is accurate or not remains to be seen in court, but one thing that is (now) known is that he was the man behind “Freedom Hosting” which provided hosting for Tor Hidden Sites. A number of those sites apparently hosted Child Abuse Images or videos. It’s not yet known if he had any connection with any of those sites beyond being their hosting provider.

One immediate question that presents itself is how did they find out that this guy was operating the Freedom Hosting site? I haven’t seen any evidence on how this happened. It’s possible that they used a server exploit to find out the machines real IP address. Or that they tracked him down via other means (financial records etc), and then happened to find out he was behind it. Incidentally, the only evidence that the Tor community has that he ran it was the timing of all these events.

So, all the sites hosted by Freedom Hosting disappeared from the Tor network. Then, a few days later they showed up again. But this time, some (but not necessarily all) the sites hosted included an extra iframe  that ran some javascript code (Link is to a pastebin, so is safe to click). Needless to say this javascript code is an attempt to break anonymity.

Now, a small amount of background. Tor (for end users) is mostly run through the Tor Browser Bundle these days. This combines Tor with a patched version of Firefox – to fix some anonymity leaks, as well as some Firefox extensions such as HTTPSEverywhere, and NoScript. NoScript is a Firefox extension that prevents Javascript from running according to the users preferences (block all, whitelist domains, blacklist domains, block none). Great, so the Javascript wouldn’t run? Well…. no. Tor Browser Bundle ships with NoScript in the “run all scripts” mode. Tor have had an FAQ about this setting up for a while. The short answer is that because Tor tries to look like a normal machine – always reporting a Windows NT Kernel (even on other OSs) for example, that disabling JS would leave you in a minority, as well as making it harder to actually use the normal javascript-reliant internet. Needless to say, Tor are reevaluating this tradeoff. This is especially true as their patches to Firefox should, in theory, make it harder for Javascript to break out and find the users normal IP.

So, this script can run. What does it do? Well it specifically targets Firefox 17 on Windows. Firefox 17 is the Extended Support Release of Firefox, which is what the Tor Browser Bundle is based on. Claims that this is a 0-day attack have been abound, but further examination has revealed that in fact, it had already been patched in Firefox 17.0.7 – which had been packaged into a Tor Browser Bundle at the end of June/early July. When you put this together it means that the script only affects users of old Tor Browser Bundles on Windows. The script appears to use the vulnerability above to try and send your real IP to another server. It also tries to set a cookie, presumably to track you as you browse the internet and onion land.

Notably TorMail, (a service which provides public email facilities over Tor), was also apparently hosted on Freedom Hosting, so far more than just people accessing Child Abuse Images are potentially affected. Anyone who wanted a truly anonymous email account has been affected. This makes it likely (although not guaranteed) that the FBI now have access to every e-mail stored on that server.

Freedom Hosting, whilst not the only Tor Hosting Service, was certainly one of the largest and well known. And TorMail was unique in its service. What this will mean for whistleblowers and others who used TorMail remains to be seen.

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