The week of September 28, 2014

Why we need Tor now more than ever

By Jillian C. York

Since Edward Snowden leaked documents demonstrating the breadth of the National Security Agency’s digital surveillance last year, the global conversation around Internet freedom has shifted from censorship to surveillance. Where once the focus was on China’s Great Firewall or Iran’s vision of a “halal Internet,” now eyes are trained on the use of FinFisher for targeted surveillance or the NSA’s global dragnet.

But censorship and surveillance go hand in hand. Just as censorship restricts individuals from accessing information and communicating freely, surveillance also chills speech, causing fear amongst a populace and hindering innovation, communications, and progress.

Fortunately, there is one tool that addresses both problems: Tor.

Initially developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and DARPA, Tor (which originally stood for “the onion router”) is free software that enables anonymity and censorship circumvention. Since 2006, the Tor Project has operated as a nonprofit organization based out of Massachusetts; it receives funding from a range of sources, including individual donors. Karen Reilly, the Tor Project’s development director, told me that since the organization enabled donations with Bitcoin—the peer-to-peer payment system that allows users to send money anonymously—the organization has seen an uptick in donations, an unsurprising development given their user base.

“Without Tor, I couldn’t do my job.” —Zack Whittaker

Tor often gets a bad rap for its ability to enable criminals to operate anonymously online, but for many of its users around the world, it’s a necessity.

From Syria—where tech-savvy Internet users have long taken advantage of Tor’s ability to circumvent state censorship—to countries like the United States, where people utilize the tool for a variety of reasons, Tor (when used correctly) ensures that governments, individuals, and corporations alike are unable to spy on Internet users’ activities. It serves as a digital shield, protecting the identity and communication of those who need it most, like domestic abuse victims and transgendered service members, to give but two examples of oft-overlooked Tor users.

“I use Tor for a multitude of reasons,” says one frequent Tor user from Kuwait (who asked to remain anonymous), where censorship is prevalent and Internet users who cross red lines face potential prison sentences. “Sometimes I need to evade stupid ISP [Internet service provider] filters that censor hacking material [and] sometimes I use it to hide my identity from websites and scripts that track users across websites and platforms. It’s incredibly easy to use.

It isn’t just individuals in repressive environments that value Tor, however. Zack Whittaker, an editor with CBS Interactive, says that for journalists, the tool is vital.

“Covering national security, law, politics, and technology, particularly in the post-Snowden era, means source secrecy is more important than ever,” Whittaker argues. “Without Tor, I couldn’t do my job.”

As Whittaker pointed out via email, news organizations inadvertently but routinely expose their journalists’ hostnames and IP addresses. Tor masks that information, making it, as Whittaker puts it, “a million times harder” for adversaries, such as governments, to identify who is communicating with who on the Internet—and when.

Tor (when used correctly) ensures that governments, individuals, and corporations alike are unable to spy on Internet users’ activities.

Post-Snowden, it seems Tor’s biggest challenge might be in meeting user demand. Tor’s software relies on a volunteer network of “relays,” operated by individuals and organizations around the world. In other words, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation explained in a recent challenge to improve the network, “the more Tor relays we have running, the faster, more robust and more secure the Tor network will be.”

But what about the risks? Apart from the aforementioned concerns about malevolent usages of Tor, an oft-expressed concern from new users is that using the software will make them more suspect.

“At first, when there weren’t so many people using Tor in here, I was thinking about that government can turn Tor users into targets,” Ahmet A. Sabancı, a Turkish activist and blogger, told me. “But after more people jumped in and start using, even just for circumventing censorship, I’ve mostly stopped worrying about that. But I know that this is still a big possibility.”

Indeed, the more users on the Tor network in a given locale, the more hidden each individual user is. That’s why widespread adoption is crucial in the areas where it’s needed most, and that’s why Tor needs to push forward despite its more nefarious capabilities.

The anonymity that Tor provides either works for everyone or it works for no one. It can only assist massive liberation movements like the Arab Spring or help to defend journalists and free speech from oppressive regimes if it can also enable criminals. There is no picking and choosing. If anonymity is to be truly safe and secure, that means it has to be safe and secure for everyone.

“Tor is basically a lifesaver for me,” Sabancı says. “That sounds like I’m giving too much credit to Tor, but it really helps me to feel more free and safe on the Internet.”


Jillian C. York is the director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III | Remix by Rob Price