The Guy Fawkes-masked hackers of international activist group Anonymous are stepping in to stop Lizard Squad in its tracks -- not in Lizard Squad's attempts to bring down the gaming networks of Sony and Microsoft but in its plan to take down anonymous Internet browser Tor.

Anonymous, which has a long history of supporting freedom from censorship on the Internet and hacking into the websites of government agencies, religious institutions and major corporations such as PayPal, Visa and MasterCard, says it does not care about Lizard Squad's attack on the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live. Its only concern is Tor, which is used by people around the world to browse and communicate without having anyone else peeking into their private activities.

There are numerous online services attempting to provide users a private browsing experience, but many experts agree that Tor, although it has its flaws, is one of the most secure anonymous browsers out there.

While Lizard Squad says only "hackers, pedophiles and miscreants" use Tor, the service is actually used by people for whom privacy in communications is a must, such as journalists and activists in countries where administrations restrict expression of anti-government sentiments.

One of the most high-profile uses of Tor was by whistleblower Edward Snowden, when he leaked classified National Security Agency (NSA) files to journalists. The service has also been useful in "dissident movements" in Iran and Egypt. Originally called The Onion Network because of its layers of security, the Tor network functions by routing traffic through a variety of volunteer-operated nodes called relays, so other parties cannot track its users down.

It's very similar to a driver going down a complex maze of twists and turns to confuse anyone following. However, the system is not foolproof, and if someone is able to take control of majority of the relays, they could eavesdrop on the communications, thus rendering Tor useless for users who value their anonymity on the Internet.

Programmer Nadim Kobeissi has pointed out that this is already the case. Kobeissi says Tor has a total of 8,000 relays, almost half of which are already controlled by Lizard Squad.

On early Friday, Dec. 26, some 3,000 new relays appeared with the label LizardNSA, suggesting that Lizard Squad is capable of executing more than the simple distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks it has launched against PSN and Xbox Live.

In an encrypted chat interview conducted with a person claiming to be a member of Lizard Squad by the Washington Post, the person says the aim of the Tor attack is to demonstrate the flaws in the network. Although the 3,000 relays that were suddenly taken in Tor's control are easily identifiable and, thus, blocked, the person suggests the group could take over the relays over time and not be recognized.

"Add the nodes to the network over the period of a month or so and there'd be no practical way of identifying our [nodes]," the person said.

The Tor Project has confirmed the existence of the LizardNSA relays but says the group has little control of the entire traffic through the network.

"This looks like a regular attempt at a Sybil attack: the attackers have signed up many new relays in hopes of becoming a large fraction of the network," the Tor Project said. "But even though they are running thousands of new relays, their relays currently make up less than one percent of the Tor network capacity. We are working now to remove these relays from the network before they become a threat, and we don't expect any anonymity or performance effects based on what we've seen so far."

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