What is TOR? How can I Un-TOR?


TOR or The Onion Router is one of the widely used Anonymity Networks in the “Wide World Web”. Before we understand what TOR Networks are, its important to understand the basic technology involved. This is key to defining a Detection/Prevention/Control strategy in Enterprise Networks. The basic technology behind TOR is Onion Routing.
Onion routing is a technique for anonymous communications over a Network. Data Packets are repeatedly encrypted and then sent through several onion routers. Like someone unpeeling an Onion, each onion router removes a layer of encryption to uncover routing instructions, and sends the message to the next router where this is repeated. Using this approach means each node in the chain is ideally aware of only 2 other nodes:

  1. The preceding node from which the onion was transmitted.
  2. The proceeding node to which the onion should next be transmitted.

Now how is it achieved? Just like in a Routed Network, there is a master node in Onion Network that maintains the list of TOR Nodes and their Public Keys (Remember TOR uses Asymmetric Crypto). Whenever a request is made, this master node crafts the data packet in layers. Outermost Layer of encryption will be opened by the First Onion Router and the Innermost encryption will be opened by the Last Onion Router. The peeling away of each layer of the onion makes it difficult or impossible to track the onion and hence the name Onion Routing.

Some things to understand about TOR in addition to the basic technology is how it works and how hard it makes life for Security Professionals to identify and control it.

  • Firstly, TOR Nodes have to be public. Their IPs cannot be hidden. Here is a sample list of TOR IP Addresses. This could potentially serve as a blacklisting source in Enterprise Firewalls/IPS/IDS/Proxy.
  • TOR Nodes can use Bridges to connect to TOR Public IPs. Bridges are nothing but Relay IP addresses that help a client connect to the TOR Network. Bridge/Relay IP Addresses make it difficult to identify TOR entry and Exit nodes. Any user can install “Vidalia” and set up a Bridge relay to help several TOR users (who have TOR Public nodes blocked by ISP or Enterprise). These bridge IP addresses are generated randomly per Request Received. There are several such Relays and they are hidden from Public IP Pool.
  • TOR traffic is encrypted and hence detection using IDS/IPS will be difficult
  • TOR Clients have the capability to use SOCKS to set up connections and hence differentiating SOCKS doing TOR and SOCKS not doing TOR is a great challenge.
  • Several Torrent softwares have the capability to do native TOR communication. Identifying such Software Machines will be a challenge in an Enterprise having a distributed setup, Remote Access Setup etc.

Now that we know what TOR is, Don’t we need to know how to control this in the Network?
Analysis and Control of TOR can be done as follows:

1. Blacklist all known IP addresses – This essentially is not fool-proof for the mentioned reasons above with Bridging.
2. Custom Script to pool Bridge IPs and keep adding the same to IP Blacklist. This can regularly query the Bridge Mail ID to get the random list of Bridge IP addresses.
3. If your enterprise is using HTTP Proxies only, then SOCKS Protocol should not be available in your network. Identifying a user doing SOCKS can help identify possible TOR clients.
4. P2P traffic should be blocked in the enterprise as P2P and TOR go hand in hand. The key things to look for is, Browser Plugins for P2P that mask behind HTTP and HTTPS Requests. This is quite an interesting development as far as Identifying P2P Users in your network is concerned.
5. If Traffic Analysis, Flow Analysis is available in your network, you can profile your Network segments for all the Application protocols in use in your network. Unless and until you are using TLS/IPSEC through out your network, chances are that very less amount of encrypted traffic is found. Filtering through the Chaff on known Encrypted traffic should narrow you down to a list of machines that do encrypted traffic and are not supposed to or not normal.

I welcome the readers to share your experience on working with TOR and let me know of any other method of identifying and analysis TOR in Enterprise networks.

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