Security Experts:

Malicious Actor Controlled 23% of Tor Exit Nodes

A malicious actor was at one point in control of roughly 23% of the entire Tor network’s exit capacity, a security researcher has discovered.

While malicious relays on the Tor network are not something new, this was the first time that a single actor managed to control such a large number of Tor exit nodes, a Tor server operator going by the name of Nusenu reveals.

The exit relays are the last in the chain of 3 that are used in connections made over the Tor network, and are those closest to the destination. Thus, they can see which website the user connects to and, if an unsecure connection is used, can also manipulate traffic.

In May this year, a malicious actor ended up controlling more than 380 exit nodes on Tor, accounting for over 23% of the relays.

At the peak of the attack on May 22, when opening up Tor, “you had a 23.95% chance to end up choosing an attacker controlled Tor exit relay. Since Tor clients usually use many Tor exit relays over time the chance to use a malicious exit relay increases over time,” the researcher says.

The actor, Nusenu explains, shows persistence: in March, after more than 150 new relays they had registered over a short period of time got removed, they managed to have them back in the network after declaring them as a group.

In May, most of the actor’s nodes were removed, but they were able to grow from 4% exit capability to over 22% in less than one month.

“[This] also gives us an idea that they apparently will not back-off after getting discovered once. In fact they appear to plan ahead for detection and removal and setup new relays preemptively to avoid a complete halt of their operations,” the researcher explains.

The threat actor continued to use the MyFamily configuration to declare the relays as a group, but no longer linked all of them together, using multiple relay groups instead. They used various email addresses (on Hotmail, ProtonMail, and Gmail) to register nodes.

Nusenu also discovered that the actor was mainly relying on OVH to host their infrastructure, but also used ISPs such as Frantech, ServerAstra and Trabia Network, known providers for relays. Another provider they used was “Nice IT Services Group.”

The main purpose of the attack, the researcher says, appears to be the manipulation of traffic flowing through their relays. For that, they remove HTTP-to-HTTPS redirects, thus being able to access the unencrypted HTTP traffic. The attack is not specific to Tor and the actor did not attack all websites.

“It appears that they are primarily after cryptocurrency related websites — namely multiple bitcoin mixer services. They replaced bitcoin addresses in HTTP traffic to redirect transactions to their wallets instead of the user provided bitcoin address. Bitcoin address rewriting attacks are not new, but the scale of their operations is. It is not possible to determine if they engage in other types of attacks,” Nusenu says.

The problem, the researcher says, does not appear to be gone, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic forced Tor to lay off a third of its staff, impacting the project’s ability to tackle malicious nodes. At least tighter policies and the inclusion of additional checks are required to better mitigate the problem.

As of August 8, the threat actor was still in control of over 10% of Tor’s exit capacity.

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