In light of recent privacy laws, regulations, technology developments, and news stories (for example, the eavesdropping Samsung SmartTV), it’s fair to consider just how much privacy one can expect while surfing online or even just sitting around the house.
The US has more than a handful of laws designed to protect an individual’s rights, but there are some cases where federal or state law may actually impinge upon user privacy. A case in point: the Texas Cyber-bullying Law that was designed to stop online bullying, but somewhat contradicted other privacy laws that allow for individual rights.
Privacy is getting hard to come by, especially in light of new regulations designed to improve both corporate security transparency and user online safety. That’s prompted many people to look for new tools to anonymize themselves online.
Some of these tools, however, are also used by cyber-criminals, so average citizens should think carefully about their choices for improving privacy.
Hungry for privacy, users have two potential options: Choose either a legitimate VPN or Tor to bounce traffic around a distributed network of relays.
Using Tor brings quite a few benefits, mostly because it has a large user base, high visibility, more funding, and greater resistance to government blocking. On top of this, Tor has also been optimized for exit traffic by having a large number of traffic nodes.
On the downside, Tor has also been picked up by cyber-criminals to perform various illicit actions or to hide their locations. For the past couple of years, Tor has been used in conjunction with a well-known malware family known as ransomware.
One of the most financially profitable malware families in the past couple years, Cryptowall, has relied on Tor to hide Command and Control (C&C) servers from authorities successfully. Tor has not only been useful for privacy-aware regular users who want to avoid profiling, but it also has enabled criminals to launch a new type of malware that both law enforcement agencies and security companies find hard to fight.
Because of intense law enforcement pressure to dismantle or tap into Tor's communications, a new anonymity network, I2P, has been created.
Probably the most notable difference between Tor and I2P is that I2P was not designed to run any proxies to the Internet (although client outproxies can be used to allow anonymous use of the Internet for people who want to browse the Web incognito). In layman’s terms, that means that I2P was not designed for Internet browsing, but that there are ways to circumvent this.
So far, I2P isn’t very popular with average users, but cyber-criminals have managed to make use of it. For instance, the new Cryptowall variant, dubbed Cryptowall 3.0, relies on I2P to anonymize traffic.
We can only speculate as to why the switch, but it stands to reason that I2P is just an alternative to Tor for when some of Tor’s hidden services are offline or bottlenecked. There are other benefits of I2P for criminals: Not only does it make it more difficult for law enforcement agencies to decrypt traffic, but there’s also the advantage of using an anonymity network that is not yet under the magnifying glass of law enforcement officials.
A possible use-case for I2P would be development of completely secure instant messaging applications. The downside is that cyber-criminals or even terrorist groups could use it to encrypt conversations. Government organizations will likely have something to say about this in the long run.
From the perspective of the average user (someone who would want to stay anonymous while browsing), Tor offers much more flexibility, since it is much more user-friendly. A simple browser can keep one’s identity somewhat cloaked behind a large network of exit nodes to avoid profiling. The downside, as I’ve noted, is that Tor is the main “playground” for illicit activities and cyber-criminals. This fact raises some serious moral questions as to whether Tor should continue being used by civilians.
I2P, on the other hand, is a network within a network, which means that I2P doesn’t have much to offer privacy-seeking users unless they want encryption. Be that as it may, the recent involvement of I2P with ransomware might suggest it could become a resource for more criminal activities.
The average user should consider other ways of staying private online (e.g. private browsing). It would be much safer (not to mention law-abiding) to adhere to a VPN service.
While the two anonymity networks were designed for completely different purposes, it seems that cyber-criminals will always find a way to use them for their own advantage.Liviu Arsene is a senior e-threat analyst for Bitdefender, with a strong background in security and technology. Reporting on global trends and developments in computer security, he writes about malware outbreaks and security incidents while coordinating with technical and ... View Full Bio