Earlier today, Motherboard posted a court document filed in a prosecution against a Silk Road 2.0 user, indicating that the user had been de-anonymized on the Tor network thanks to research conducted by a “university-based research institute”.
As Motherboard pointed out, the timing of this research lines up with an active attack on the Tor network that was discovered and publicized in July 2014. Moreover, the details of that attack were eerily similar to the abstract of a (withdrawn) BlackHat presentation submitted by two researchers at the CERT division of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).
A few hours later, the Tor Project made the allegations more explicit, posting a blog entry accusing CMU of accepting $1 million to conduct the attack. A spokesperson for CMU didn’t exactly deny the allegations, but demanded better evidence and stated that he wasn’t aware of any payment. No doubt we’ll learn more in the coming weeks as more documents become public.
You might wonder why this is important. After all, the crimes we’re talking about are pretty disturbing. One defendant is accused of possessing child pornography, and if the allegations are true, the other was a staff member on Silk Road 2.0. If CMU really did conduct Tor de-anonymization research for the benefit of the FBI, the people they identified were allegedly not doing the nicest things. It’s hard to feel particularly sympathetic.
Except for one small detail: there’s no reason to believe that the defendants were the only people affected.
If the details of the attack are as we understand them, a group of academic researchers deliberately took control of a significant portion of the Tor network. Without oversight from the University research board, they exploited a vulnerability in the Tor protocol to conduct a traffic confirmation attack, which allowed them to identify Tor client IP addresses and hidden services. They ran this attack for five months, and potentially de-anonymized thousands of users. Users who depend on Tor to protect them from serious harm.
It’s quite possible that the CMU researchers exercised strict protocols to ensure that they didn’t accidentally de-anonymize innocent bystanders. This would be standard procedure in any legitimate research involving human subjects, particularly research that has the potential to do harm. If the researchers did take such steps, it would be nice to know about them. CMU hasn’t even admitted to the scope of the research project, nor have they published any results, so we just don’t know.
While most of the computer science researchers I know are fundamentally ethical people, as a community we have a blind spot when it comes to the ethical issues in our field. There’s a view in our community that Institutional Review Boards are for medical researchers, and we’ve somehow been accidentally caught up in machinery that wasn’t meant for us. And I get this — IRBs are unpleasant to work with. Sometimes the machinery is wrong.
But there’s also a view that computer security research can’t really hurt people, so there’s no real reason for sort of ethical oversight machinery in the first place. This is dead wrong, and if we want to be taken seriously as a mature field, we need to do something about it.
We may need different machinery, but we need something. That something begins with the understanding that active attacks that affect vulnerable users can be dangerous, and should never be conducted without rigorous oversight — if they must be conducted at all. It begins with the idea that universities should have uniform procedures for both faculty researchers and quasi-government organizations like CERT, if they live under the same roof. It begins with CERT and CMU explaining what went on with their research, rather than treating it like an embarrassment to be swept under the rug.
Most importantly, it begins with researchers looking beyond their own research practices. So far the response to the Tor news has been a big shrug. It’s wonderful that most of our community is responsible. But none of that matters if we look the other way when others in our community fail to act responsibly.