When does an employee cross the line from taking steps to increase their personal privacy to sacrificing the security of their company and/or their clients? It’s a blurry distinction, but an important one for organizations to be aware of while working to secure their systems.
Expectations of privacy vary from person to person, but corporate devices are always under scrutiny. Due to company mandates for mobile software management on corporate laptops and phones, employees have become more creative when it comes to concealing their activities and accessing content that is likely unfit for the workplace. They are increasingly using tools to bypass corporate firewalls to operate anonymously.
Browsing privately using Tor
One of the most popular tools of this kind is Tor, a self-defined network of “volunteer-operated" servers that allows people to improve their privacy and security on the Internet. Instead of making a direct connection to the network, Tor uses a series of relays to route traffic across multiple points with the endpoint and each relay adding a layer of encryption. This is done to ensure that each relay is unable to examine the data as well as providing anonymity by masking the origin of the connection. This allows the user (or a malicious party) to share private information without being traced.
As Tor uses traditional Web network ports for its connections, it also enables users to circumvent blocked sites, effectively overcoming any censorship by the network’s controllers. Tor is used by more than 750,000 people every day in countries around the world, with upwards of 126,000 of those users located in the United States.
While Tor can serve as a valuable resource for situations involving sensitive communications, such as those by government agents, activists, and journalists, its use in the workplace is often a different story. Employees may use Tor for many legitimate purposes, including keeping personal health or financial information private' However, Tor is frequently used by miscreants in pursuit of explicit materials or illegal substances with the belief that those actions cannot be traced back to the user, as was demonstrated through its use on the Silk Road (before it was shut down) along with similar underground sites.
Last August, IBM advised companies to block Tor altogether, citing frequent connections with malicious activity, ranging from ransomware to hacking attempts. IBM came to this conclusion as Tor provided end users with unfettered access to the Web, unsecured download mirrors, uncontrolled connections to phishing sites and open channels that allow external actors to facilitate an attack inside or outside that network.
One common recommendation to protect sensitive information from employees using Tor is to place controls on connections to the Tor relays. But this can turn into an uphill battle for organizations due to the ever-growing number and changing structure of the Tor network.
Browser extensions = new Tor attack vectors
While Tor was traditionally installed as a separate application or service that could be controlled by software policies, browser extensions and plugins have appeared in recent years that are essentially Tor clients. This facilitates the user’s ability to use Tor for browsing but creates an additional vector that is hard to control with traditional organizational controls.
Worse, relating to the issue of information exfiltration, Tor should be seen as a high risk due to its mechanisms used to protect users’ privacy. These make it harder for organizations to track, establish, and identify any IP being leaked as well as understand where it is disseminated. In addition, Tor exit relays need to pass on data to the final destination. In order to do that, the data sent by the client needs to be unencrypted from its TOR layer of protection, leaving it vulnerable to traffic-sniffing and attackers capturing organizational credentials used to access services.
(Correction: Last sentence has been corrected per author 3/19/16)