Tor Puts NSA at Odds With Browser's U.S. Navy Creators, Other Agencies

NEWS ANALYSIS: The encrypted Tor browser that's making extra work for the National Security Agency was created by the U.S. Navy with support from other agencies.

There’s a saying about the left hand not knowing what the right had is doing. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the federal government’s dysfunctional relationship with the Tor browser and the onion router.

By now, you’re heard that the National Security Agency is having a tough time unraveling Tor. This bundle of software based on the Firefox browser enables a process in which Internet traffic is routed among a series of routers, each of which adds a layer of encryption and anonymity as it happens. The Tor browser is freely available to anyone who wants to use it, including dissidents in nations with oppressive governments and even child abusers.

The problem with Tor from the NSA’s viewpoint is that it works too well. Actually nailing down who’s using it, decrypting what they’re doing, and doing all of that in a timely fashion is driving the NSA crazy. So, naturally, you have to ask yourself what band of privacy advocates dreamed up this nearly uncrackable communications pathway? The answer may surprise you.

Tor is the brainchild of the U.S. government. In fact, Tor was invented with the support of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, located near Washington, D.C., in suburban Maryland, just inside the Beltway. And yes, this is pretty close to the NSA, which is also located in suburban Maryland, although it’s outside the Beltway.

And I know what you’re thinking. The U.S. Navy is part of the same Department of Defense that also operates the NSA, which is theoretically part of the U.S. Army and is run by an Army general, Keith Alexander. The Naval Research Laboratory has continued to fund the development of Tor. But the Navy has help.

An even larger supporter of Tor is the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which is the propaganda arm of the U.S. government. The BBG runs the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Martí and other similar services around the world. Tor is also supported by the National Science Foundation. According to The Washington Post, Tor also receives substantial funding from the U.S. Department of State. In other words, one part of the U.S. military is arguing with sister federal agencies about the creation of a secure browser that it says could be used to hide the nefarious activities of criminals and terrorists.

If this were some long-ago creation that somehow went rogue, you might understand the frustration of the NSA, but it’s not. The Army-run intelligence service is stymied by the Navy-created and run encryption technology. And you thought the Army-Navy football game was the height of inter-service rivalries.

Now, I have to admit that as a retired Navy officer, it gives me a certain amount of satisfaction to see my service create something that works so well. It gives me even greater pleasure to see the Navy driving an Army general nuts.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...