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The FBI Refused Our FOIA Request for Information About Its Attack on Tor

Plenty of questions around the FBI and CMU's relationship remain.
Photo: CMU

The FBI and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) really don't want to talk about their relationship.

The FBI has decided to neither confirm nor deny the existence of any emails, documents, or contracts between the agency and university in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by Motherboard.

"Please be advised that it is the FBI's policy to neither confirm nor deny the existence of any records which would tend to indicate or reveal whether an individual organization is supplying material or investigatory assistance to the FBI," the response, dated November 19 2015 reads.


Motherboard filed the FOIA after it was revealed that a "university-based research institute" had provided the FBI with the IP addresses of dark web sites and Tor users between January and July 2014. Circumstantial evidence pointed to CMU, and specifically its Software Engineering Institute, being involved.

Those IP addresses led to the shutting of Silk Road 2.0 and a number of other dark web sites, as well as the arrests of Brian Farrell, charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine, and Gabriel Peterson-Siler, who is charged with possession of child pornography.

After Motherboard published its report, the Tor Project, the non-profit that maintains the Tor anonymity network, made an unsubstantiated claim that researchers from CMU had been paid at least $1 million to carry out an attack on Tor. An FBI spokesperson told Motherboard that this claim was inaccurate.

Then CMU finally broke its silence, and released a very carefully worded statement implying that the institution had been subpoenaed for the IP addresses, rather than acting on any sort of contract.

Alexander Volynkin and Michael McCord, two researchers from CMU's Software Engineering Institute, were scheduled to give a talk at the Black Hat hacking conference in summer 2014. The researchers were going to reveal how a $3,000 piece of kit could unmask the IP addresses of Tor hidden services as well as their users. The talk, however, was abruptly canceled without explanation.

In the rejected FOIA request, Motherboard asked specifically for correspondence involving Volynkin and McCord.

"Acknowledging the FBI's liaison activities or investigatory techniques invites the risk of circumvention of federal law enforcement efforts," the FBI's response continues. Previously when asked for more details on this case, a CMU spokesperson told Motherboard "We cannot comment on Tor."

Motherboard will be appealing the FOIA decision.