Black Friday

Harvard bomb threat student caught after using Guerrilla Mail and Tor

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

December 19, 2013

Perhaps it’s wrong of us, but we found the story of Eldo Kim, a Harvard University student who made bomb threats in order to get out of an taking a final exam rather amusing (although the potential five year jail sentence certainly isn’t.)

More interesting, however, and a pertinent lesson for those who want to protect their anonymity, is how he got caught. Kim sent the bomb threats by email, using an anonymous disposable email service called Guerrilla Mail, and further protecting his identity using the Tor anonymity network.

These might sound like great precautions to prevent getting caught, but Kim made the mistake of using the Harvard campus WiFi network when making the threats. All Harvard security had to do was check their logs to see who was using Tor at the time the emails were sent, and the police could then bring them in for questioning (and it is very possible that Kim was the only person using Tor at 8:30 that day). This incidentally is known as ‘end to end timing attack’, and is known vulnerability with Tor.

Apparently it didn’t take much pressure from the police before Kim gave a full confession.

Although this mistake was undoubtedly very stupid on Kim’s part, it is, to be honest, a fairly easy one to make, and demonstrates how those serious about security need to carefully think through the implications of their setup. Remember that Kim was a student at one of the world’s top universities. He is not dumb.

In Kim’s case, he should instead have gone somewhere with open WiFi (such as public library or café), which would have made it very difficult to catch him. Using VPN instead of Tor may have helped a little as it is a little less obvious to spot, but would still have been vulnerable to an end to end timing attack.

Of course, we do not in any condone Kim’s actions, but anonymity tools are just that: tools. They have many extremely good uses, and to use them well people need to learn from the mistakes of others.

Douglas Crawford

I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. You can now follow me on Twitter - @douglasjcrawf.

7 responses to “Harvard bomb threat student caught after using Guerrilla Mail and Tor

  1. Your assertion that an asian student has to work twice as hard as white students is a factually wrong racist statement. It might be more difficult due to some sicial factors, but twice as difficult? Show your data or correct it please. Also if you are going to compare asian to white you are ignoring all others; maybe you should put a table together showing data and how you arrived at it for a variety of racial groups.

    1. Hi Micheal,

      https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/us/affirmative-action-battle-has-a-new-focus-asian-americans.html. TBH, I don’t see how saying that someone from racial minority has more challenges to overcome than his white classmates is in any way racist. Neither do I think it useful useful to compare Asian to other racial groups, as Ivy League schools are overwhelming white.

      I am myself a white person (Scottish) and therefore feel perfectly entitled to criticize the structural inequalities that are clearly present in institutions on both your side of the pond and mine. Indeed, I would say that to deny these structural inequalities is itself racist.

      All of which misses the point I was making – that Mr Kim is clearly a very smart person.

    2. I’m not the OP, but don’t blame the readers for “missing the point” that he’s a smart kid. You needlessly distracted from that point by making an insanely bold claim with no support whatsoever, and it invites a ton of questions. What do you mean they have to “work” twice as hard? Do you mean their results need to be twice as good to gain admission? Or do you mean they’re half as smart as whites and so success for them requires that much more effort?

      FWIW, I don’t think you meant anything specific. I think you were just lazily making a general point. But that’s the issue. That line adds nothing to your story and at the very least is extremely distracting. You offered no support or elaboration, and so readers are left flailing. It’s either lazy writing or blatant racism. That’s not our fault.

      Is it true that Asian-American students are held to a higher standard for college admissions? Most likely, at many schools. But considering the United States is ~5% Asian-American and Harvard University is ~22% Asian-American, we’re certainly not talking about run-of-the-mill, simple discrimination. The subject requires far, far more nuance than your one casual throwaway line will allow.

      Even allowing that Asian-American students need to work harder than white students, the complaint filed with the Department of Education against Harvard University by Asian-American student groups–so certainly not one that would be giving Harvard the benefit of the doubt–claims that Asian students needed to score 140 points better on their SAT’s than white students (vs 270 points better than Hispanic students, and 450 points higher than African American students). So by that particular metric, Asian-American students needed to be 8.75% better than white students. Is that fair? Probably not. But if I said there was no discrimination, and you said Asian-Americans needed to work 200% harder, and then we learned that it’s actually ~9% harder, I seem more correct even though I’m very clearly wrong. You’re just even more wrong. And you put yourself in that situation. For no reason whatsoever. All that line does is invite people to point out how wildly incorrect you are. So why include it at all?

      I know this is just a blog post, you probably didn’t give the line much thought, and you likely don’t have an editor. But as someone who cares about genuine racism, I cringe every time I see someone make a lazy, easily-dismissed overstatement like that. (It’s really hard to convince people that 9% is a genuinely important number when they’re still laughing at your 200% claim.)

      “Asian-American students are held to a higher standard than white students.” Worth examining/discussing in general. Easily supported. Still not relevant to this story, but at least a fair statement.

      “…as an Asian student he would likely have had to work twice as hard as white students…” Confusing. Immediately and obviously untrue, however it’s interpreted. Distracts from story.

      Just don’t do that crap, please. If you can’t support something, don’t put it in the story.

      1. Hi Alex,

        Thank you for that well-reasoned argument. I too care about racism, but you are right – I probably did not give this line as much consideration when I wrote as I should have. I have now removed it. I will leave comments on this subject online for a short time in order for you and anyone else who wishes to provide feedback. If you have no objection, I would then prefer to remove them, as I feel they distract from what is otherwise an interesting article. Thanks again for a good point well made.

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