Onion Routing and Anonymity are Still Relevant 25 Years Later

Tom Badders
March 8, 2022 • 4 min read
Onion Routing and Anonymity are Still Relevant 25 Years Later

In a recent webinar hosted by Security Week, “Internet Icons – The Inventors of Onion Routing,” the three founders of onion routing — David Goldschlag, Paul Syverson, and Michael Reed — discussed the motivations behind the development of the groundbreaking technology that has transformed how we secure online communications.

What is onion routing?

Developed in 1996 to protect U.S. intelligence communication online, onion routing is a technique for anonymous communication over a computer network. In an onion network, the messages are encapsulated in multiple layers of encryption at the original entry node. The encrypted data is transmitted through a series of nodes or routers to relay messages. Unlike VPNs, which typically use a single server to route your traffic, onion routing uses multiple routers or nodes, making it difficult for bad actors to trace the origin of the sender.

The technology gets its “onion” name from wrapping each message with layers of encryption which have to be “peeled off” or “unwrapped” at each node just like an onion.  Each node only knows the location of the previous node along with the location of the next node. The current node does not know if the previous node is the originator or just another node, ensuring that the sender’s identity is kept anonymous. The process continues to the last node, where the final layer of encryption is removed and the original message is transmitted to its final destination. Due to this design, the nodes cannot see other nodes in the network and only the final node (“exit node”) is able to determine its own location in the traffic chain.

The Onion Router (Tor) Network

Tor, short for “The Onion Router” is the largest and most well-known implementation of the onion network. It is an open-source, decentralized privacy network that is comprised of thousands of volunteer-run servers and enables users to browse the internet anonymously. While Tor can provide privacy protection for individuals or groups seeking anonymity, it has also been used by criminal groups for illicit purposes such as malware distribution. The inherent characteristic of Tor enables threat actors to remain anonymous, making it difficult for organizations to effectively respond to cyberattacks.

Implementations of onion routing

Since its introduction 25 years ago, onion routing has been implemented in a number of services including virtual private networks, browser/web isolation, email, remote login, etc. Global companies like Apple have implemented features like Private Relay to protect your identity and online activities when using Apple’s Safari browser. Traffic is sent through two separate, secure internet relays. Apple’s Private Relay feature embodies the same purpose as onion routing’s – protect the identity and online activities of the user.

Using onion routing to protect critical assets

The mission of onion routing – to provide privacy and anonymous communication on the internet — is just as relevant today if not more. In today’s hyper connected digital world, cyberattacks are surging across public and private sectors.  The traditional security solutions protecting and organization’s perimeter are not adequate to keep out cybercriminals. In 93 percent of the cases, a hacker can bypass an organization’s network perimeter to gain access to their network resources.  Once inside the organization’s network, bad actors can move laterally across the network to disrupt key operations.

To protect critical network assets, there are commercial managed offerings that have expanded on the onion routing techniques to enable traffic to exit to private cloud and on-premises enclaves. With this capability, the server containing the critical or confidential asset can be cordoned off from the rest of the network and hidden from the web and thus impenetrable if there is a security breach. The attack surfaces have been eliminated, hence removing the cyber threat.

To learn more about how Telos Ghost can help protect your critical assets, visit www.telos.com/telos-ghost.

Tom Badders
Senior Product Manager
Tom Badders is a Senior Product Manager at Telos Corporation.
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