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2 July 2020

US authorities issue guidance on how to defend against cyber attacks via Tor


US authorities issue guidance on how to defend against cyber attacks via Tor

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have released a security advisory for organizations that provides a series of recommendations on how to protect against malicious activities originating fr om or routed through the Tor anonymity network.

Tor (The Onion Router) is software that allows users to browse the web anonymously by encrypting and routing requests through multiple relay layers or nodes. However, threat actors can also use Tor to conceal their activity because identity and point of origin cannot be determined for a Tor software user.

“Examples of this activity include performing reconnaissance, penetrating systems, exfiltrating and manipulating data, and taking services offline through denial-of-service attacks and delivery of ransomware payloads. Threat actors have relayed their command and control (C2) server communications—used to control systems infected with malware—through Tor, obscuring the identity (location and ownership) of those servers,” the advisory said.

“Organizations that do not take steps to block or monitor Tor traffic are at heightened risk of being targeted and exploited by threat actors hiding their identity and intentions using Tor.”

To detect malicious activity via Tor, organizations can use an indicator-based approach by utilizing security information and event management (SIEM) tools and other log analysis platforms.

Network defenders can also take a behavior-based approach that involves searching for the operational patterns of Tor client software and protocols, such as increased usage of TCP and UDP ports commonly affiliated with Tor (9001, 9030, 9040, 9050, 9051, and 9150), higher incidence of DNS queries for domains ending with the .onion or torproject.org, suffixes.

“Organizations should research and enable the pre-existing Tor detection and mitigation capabilities within their existing endpoint and network security solutions, as these often employ effective detection logic. Solutions such as web application firewalls, router firewalls, and host/network intrusion detection systems may already provide some level of Tor detection capability,” CISA said.

To reduce the risk posed by malicious actors who use Tor, the agency recommends taking three different approaches:

Most restrictive approach: Block all web traffic to and from public Tor entry and exit nodes. Organizations that wish to take a conservative or less resource-intensive approach to reduce the risk posed by threat actors’ use of Tor should implement tools that restrict all traffic—malicious and legitimate—to and from Tor entry and exit nodes. Of note, blocking known Tor nodes does not completely eliminate the threat of malicious actors using Tor for anonymity, as additional Tor network access points, or bridges, are not all listed publicly.

Less restrictive approach. Tailor monitoring, analysis, and blocking of web traffic to and from public Tor entry and exit nodes. There are instances in which legitimate users may leverage Tor for internet browsing and other non-malicious purposes. Organizations that do not wish to block legitimate traffic to/from Tor entry/exit nodes should consider adopting practices that allow for network monitoring and traffic analysis for traffic from those nodes, and then consider appropriate blocking. This approach can be resource intensive but will allow greater flexibility and adaptation of defensive.

Blended approach: Block all Tor traffic to some resources, allow and monitor for others. Given the various licit and illicit uses of Tor, a blended approach may be an appropriate risk mitigation strategy for some organizations (i.e., intentionally allowing traffic to/from Tor only for specific websites and services wh ere legitimate use may be expected and blocking all Tor traffic to/from non-excepted processes/services). This may require continuous re-evaluation as an entity considers its own risk tolerance associated with different applications. The level of effort to implement this approach is high.

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