Spies 'undermining' efforts to monitor dark web

Aug 22, 2014

While some at GCHQ and the NSA try to crack encrypted networks, others may be undoing their work

Patrick Lux/Getty Images

British and American intelligence agents are undermining their colleagues' efforts to monitor and control the so-called "dark web" – a hidden zone of the internet where activities and identities are concealed – according to the developer of software designed to allow people to browse anonymously

Andrew Lewman, the Tor Project's executive director, says he believes NSA and GCHQ agents have told his software engineers about flaws they uncovered in the program's code.

By doing so, they have given his team the opportunity to patch the cracks and maintain the anonymity of the network, Lewman said.

"There are plenty of people in both organisations who can anonymously leak data to us to say  maybe you should look here, maybe you should look at this to fix this," Lewman said in an interview with the BBC. "And they have."

The Tor browser was originally designed by the US Naval Research Laboratory, and still receives funding from the US State Department. It is used by military, activists and some businesses to browse the internet confidentially. But it has also been used for illegal activities such as buying and selling drugs, trafficking illegal pornography and trading child abuse images.

Lewman said he receives anonymous messages about problems with the browser's code on "probably a monthly" basis, but cannot prove that they came from the NSA or GCHQ.

"It's a hunch," he said. "Obviously we are not going to ask for any details… [But] the fact that we take a completely anonymous bug report allows them to report to us safely."

He added: "It's sort of funny because it also came out that GCHQ heavily relies on Tor working to be able to do a lot of their operations.

"So, you can imagine one part of GCHQ is trying to break Tor, the other part is trying to make sure it's not broken because they're relying on it to do their work."

GCHQ responded to the allegations by saying: "It is long-standing policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters. Furthermore, all of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework, which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate."

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