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Tor Usage Doubles in a Week: Botnet or Snowden?

Tor is an anonymity network operated by volunteers that provides encryption and identity protection capabilities. It allows users to avoid surveillance and traffic interception as well as circumvent internet censorship, and is a favorite of whistleblowers and political activists. Since August 19, the number of Tor users has skyrocketed to 1.2 million, from 600,000.

Most companies would rejoice, but Roger Dingledine, project leader for Tor, has a more level head. Could there really be that many more users for Tor, all of a sudden?

One thing’s certain – the machine connections are real. “And it's not just a fluke in the metrics data – it appears that there really are twice as many Tor clients running as before,” Dingledine wrote in the Tor discussion forum.

Another thing’s certain – the traffic levels aren’t what they should be for that kind of user increase. “There's a slight increase (worsening) in the performance measurements, but it's hard to say if that's a real difference,” he noted. “So while there are a bunch of new Tor clients running, it would seem they're not doing much.”

The obvious conclusion points to a malware infection, but as Dingledine cautioned, “It's easy to speculate.”

He added, “(Pirate Browser publicity gone overboard? People finally reading about the NSA thing? Botnet?), but some good solid facts would sure be useful,” he wrote. “Anybody know details?”

Tor has been used to hide botnets before: Last year a botnet called Sky-net used Tor as its internal communication protocol, using the Hidden Services functionality that Tor provides to hide its C&C servers. The incident pointed out that Tor could be used, as researchers at Rapid7 said at the time, as a “bulletproof botnet infrastructure.”

While we wait for the white hats to track down evidence of something similar happening here, the Register did some digging into possible causes and pointed out the fact that privacy concerns growing in the US and UK after Edward Snowden’s leak of Operation PRISM’s widespread surveillance program. Tor could thwart government tracking. The Register reports that at the start of August, around 90,000 Americans and 16,000 from the UK were connecting to Tor daily. That now stands at around 150,000 daily users in the US and 35,000 in the UK.

India's Tor usage also has gone off the charts, jumping from just 7,500 daily users to more than 32,000. In Brazil, usage shot up from 15,000 to more than 85,000 users. Even in China, where web surfers are subject to the “Great Firewall,” Tor usage is on the rise – reaching almost 400 confirmed users.

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