This week, the Russian Interior Ministry put out an open call for hackers from around the globe, and posted a large bounty for any freelance blackhats who could assist the former Soviet Union in breaking the code that makes anonymizing communications and web traffic possible.
Totaling just short of four million rubles ($111,290 USD), the prize was offered up as a way for the leaders of the Russian Federation to recruit new talent into their ranks with one of its largest challenges on the corkboard, while simultaneously addressing one of the fastest growing threats that the country has faced since the invention of the Internet.
Tor has never been especially popular amongst the 30 million households in Russia that are hooked up to the net, but in just the past two months the government has seen the number of users on the secretive service explode from 80,000, to just over 200,000 with little-to-no explanation for the sudden surge in membership.
“Law enforcers are worried about the ability of internet users to anonymously visit the internet, and particularly blocked sites. Also, the new blogging law that comes into force in August says that all bloggers with a daily audience of over 3,000 must register their identity. But someone blogging through TOR can do so anonymously,” Sarkis Darbinyan, a lawyer for Russia’s Pirate Party, told BBC.
As military tensions continue to escalate along the border of Ukraine, it’s clear that Russia intends to take their newfound power in the region to every battlefield imaginable. Both physical and virtual worlds are under threat from the Kremlin, and much like the intelligence war that persisted throughout the 1960s between themselves and the United States, the battle for privacy in a new era will be fought by elite agencies, highly skilled mathematicians, and massive supercomputers designed to decrypt and decode billions of bytes of code in less time than it took for you to read this sentence.
As much as the United States has shown itself as an enemy of privacy and Internet freedom with the NSA revelations, one can only imagine what Russia would, and probably is doing with the same amount of power. This is a country notorious for its oppressive, top-down oligarchic style of government, and while America is certainly going against some of the values they claim to support on the surface by spying on its own people, Russia has never had any reservations about being as corrupt as necessary to further their own national agenda.
The NSA pulled no punches about their disdain for the anonymizing network in their internal PowerPoint presentation Tor Stinks, which detailed both the challenges and the successes that the surveillance arm faced when attempting to track users who connected to the meshnet as a way to keep their communications silent from the outside world.
And as the former head of the KGB during the height of international Cold War tension, Putin has slowly started to unmask himself as someone who is hellbent on bringing back a Russia that was just starting to be forgotten, equipped with all the tools of the 21st century at his disposal.