The CIA says Russians disaffected by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may be trying to get in touch with US intelligence – and it wants them to go to the darknet.
The agency on Monday (2 May) began a new push to promote its presence on a part of the internet accessible only through specialised tools that provide more anonymity. The CIA has a darknet site that has the same features as its regular homepage but accessible only through the Tor internet browser, which has encryption features not available on most regular browsers.
Instructions in English and Russian on how to access the darknet site appeared Monday on the CIA’s social media channels. The agency hopes Russians living abroad can share the instructions with contacts inside the country.
While many Russians appear to support what the Kremlin officially calls a “special military operation”, long-time Russia watchers think Putin’s management of the war may push away some powerful people who disagree with him.
Even with immense capabilities to capture communications and satellite imagery, it remains critical for Western intelligence agencies to recruit human sources who can offer insight into the Kremlin and conditions inside Russia.
“Our global mission demands that individuals can contact us securely from anywhere,” the agency said in a statement.
A CIA official quoted by AP said the agency knows “there are concerned Russians who are desperately trying to reach CIA”. The official declined to say how many people had tried to reach out since the war began.
“It’s not safe to directly engage Americans physically or virtually” in Russia, the official said. “For those people that want to engage with us securely, this is the way to do it.”
Launched in 2019, the CIA’s darknet site is accessible through the Tor browser. Tor, short for “The Onion Router”, routes internet traffic through multiple third parties to mask a user’s identity and destination. After downloading the Tor browser, the user typically inputs a long string of characters followed by “. onion”.
Using Tor strips away cookies and many other means of tracking the typical internet user. And while no form of communication is completely secure at all times, US intelligence officers say a potential tipster will be better protected on the darknet.
Tor was originally created with support from the US Naval Research Laboratory and run by a non-profit since 2006. It has long been used by those seeking extra privacy: dissidents in authoritarian countries and people seeking to circumvent firewalls and censors, law enforcement and intelligence officers, and journalists.
(Edited by Georgi Gotev)