Researchers who unmasked drug suspects on Tor deny FBI paid them

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 18, 2015 6:47 PM

By Dustin Volz

(Reuters) - A federally funded technology research institute, criticized for its role in unmasking users of an Internet anonymity service, said on Wednesday it has complied with FBI subpoenas but has not accepted payment for identifying several suspects in a drug investigation.

The Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University issued a statement responding to what it termed “inaccurate media reports” about an alleged $1 million payment by the FBI. The statement said the institute "abides by the rule of law" in complying with subpoenas but "receives no funding for its compliance."

The institute, whose research is largely funded by the U.S. Defense Department, did not deny that it was the source of data that led to an FBI sting operation on users of Tor, an Internet privacy service.

Civil liberties advocates have raised concerns that such a collaboration could allow law enforcement to evade warrant requirements. They have said they suspect that evidence obtained from Tor is being withheld in judicial proceedings.

The Tor anonymity network is used to hide computer IP addresses in order to conceal the identity of an Internet user.

The FBI last week denied it had made any payments to the researchers, who last year abruptly canceled a talk about their Tor-monitoring work at a security conference in Las Vegas. Many in the security research community speculated then that government officials may have pressured the researchers to keep quiet about their de-anonymizing technology. (http://reut.rs/1kFALBY)

The Tor Project, a group of developers that oversees development of the anonymity software, had alleged that the FBI paid the Carnegie Mellon researchers to assist in an investigation into Silk Road 2.0, a dark Web bazaar where users could buy and sell illegal drugs anonymously.

That accusation followed a report on the Motherboard website that cited circumstantial evidence to allege that Carnegie Mellon's research was the source for a string of arrests of criminal suspects on Silk Road.

“How did the FBI even know what to subpoena?” asked Kate Krauss, a spokeswoman with the Tor Project, in an emailed statement. “Did CMU receive funding for something else from the FBI, rather than the ‘subpoenaed’ information?"

Tor was funded by the U.S. government as a communications tool to be used by dissidents in oppressive countries. But the platform has increasingly drawn ire from U.S. spies who are frustrated by how difficult it is to monitor its users.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz. Editing by Jonathan Weber and David Gregorio)