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How intelligence agencies recruit Tor administrators

In an anonymous statement, a Tor administrator explains how the Dutch intelligence agency AIVD attempted to recruit him. His story gives a detailed insight into the expanding power of the security state, whose influence now reaches into the business world, prestigious universities, and (international) hacker communities.

Marco*, the provider of the statement, is a 30-year-old Dutchman with a Master of Science degree from the Delft University of Technology. He is an expert concerning the Tor network who – for research purposes – runs some Tor exit nodes. Marco states:

“Suddenly, I was approached by a man and woman at a gym I frequented at that time. They identified themselves with a badge from the Ministry of Interior and explained they were working for the AIVD. I felt somewhat overwhelmed, and I was afraid I had got myself into trouble.”

That is a common tactic used by intelligence agencies. They do not announce their visit in advance so that they can overwhelm their targets. It also gives them an edge before the recruitment process has started.

“First, they asked all sorts of questions related to my education. They had read my thesis regarding IT security and complimented me extensively.”

‘Ego boosting’ is yet another tactic to make the target feel important and comfortable. It also makes you somewhat forget that you are talking to an intelligence officer.

“At one point, they offered me all types of jobs at the AIVD. I could work from their office, but I could also do fieldwork as an informant or infiltrator. They explained they were creating a special team called the Joint Sigint Cyber Unit (JSCU).”

File:Zoetermeer De Leyens AIVD kantoor (2).JPG - Wikimedia Commons
The AIVD headquarters in Zoetermeer, the Netherlands

The JSCU is a special department that encompasses employees from the AIVD, as well as the military intelligence agency MIVD. In the past few years, the department has grown significantly to 700 employees, including fifty hackers. Their task is to intercept radio and satellite communications and to engage in cyberwarfare. The JSCU is known to share intelligence with foreign agencies, such as the CIA and the NSA.

“Their approach clarified to me that the intelligence agencies are monitoring IT students in the final stages of their education. They are also looking for individuals who are slightly older – but still connected with younger generations – for management positions.”

At that point, the intelligence officers become more open about the intended targets of the unit:

“Subsequently, they asked me if I was interested in traveling for several years. I could also work for a German technological company. The idea was to travel to Germany and visit Hackspaces of the Chaos Computer Club. I had to report on these events, and the agency would cover all costs.”

The Chaos Computer Club (CCC) was founded in West-Germany in 1981. It is the largest European hacker organization, with approximately 7700 members. The CCC is an independent association that, among other things, shows a strong commitment to (online) privacy, cryptography, and anonymity. Given the expertise and activities of some members, the CCC acts as a magnet for intelligence agencies.

“They kept offering me proposals. They promised me ‘unparalleled opportunities’ if I decided to work for the AIVD. They told me I could attend hacker parties in Spain, Italy, and Austria, and consider those events as paid holidays.”

Then, more targets were mentioned:

“The male intelligence officer explained the AIVD was interested in the developers of Tor and Tails. What he meant was that they need informants and infiltrators, but he said this in a lengthy way. According to the officer, this was part of an international operation.”

Aside from paid expenses and travel costs, Marco was offered a substantial starting salary.

“I could determine my salary, as long as it was no more than 5000 euros per month.”

Despite these generous offers, Marco was able to see through the grooming efforts. He refused, but initially, the officers kept attempting to convince him. When Marco persisted, the tone of the conversation changed. Now, the time for compliments was over.

“We know you are building Tor exit nodes. If you do that while working for us, you can make a living out of it. If you do not work for the intelligence agency and something illegal occurs, we cannot prevent the police from raiding your house and confiscating your equipment. Finally, the officers explained to Marco that talking about the meeting was a criminal offense. After giving me their number, they left.

Marco’s story demonstrates the priorities and dedication of intelligence agencies. And already they have achieved success. In 2017, the Dutch authorities announced they had taken over, dismantled, and deleted Hansa Market, at that point, one of the largest markets on the dark web.

If intelligence agencies succeed in infiltrating service providers such as Tor and Tails, this will be a severe blow to online privacy and anonymity.

*Marco is a fictitious name.


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