The Tor Project – Anonymity Online

For anyone with even a passing interest in the Tor Project and network, a recent presentation by Jacob Appelbaum at the TNC2012 is essential viewing. It can be viewed here (skip to about 48 minutes in).

I have of course been aware of the Tor Project for years but my opinion has always been blinkered by the notion that it’s fertile ground and enabler for spammers, illegal activity and, scariest of all, child paedophilia.

This presentation changed my mind – especially in the context (and graphs shown) in relation to recent spring risings in Egypt, Syria and other places. One exchange that stood out for me was when a gentleman (from “the fascist organisation known as” Cisco – seriously, know when to STFU) accused Jacob of being the equivalent to an arms dealer because his software is used in the Egyptian revolution but it is also supporting “abuse and bad things”. Some of Jabob’s response included (e. & o.e.):

We’re not arms dealers. I’m sorry to say it, because giving away information to all people freely and not charging for it – literally not charging for it – that’s significantly different to selling specific pieces of hardware to hunt down Falun Gong and kill them in a genocide.

There’s a huge difference there and if you don’t see the difference I would encourage you to consider what it would be like if you were that Falun Gong person.

There is a difference between that and building an anominity system where all people have access for free, to be able to read freely and to be able to speak freely.

And it is true that there is an unprecedented scale and, just like Gutenberg, it is unprecedented in an equal way that is, I think, a liberation technology if you will. I’m happy that people in Egypt used it because it’s a non-violent direct action that allows people to protect themselves.

Like if you invented penicillin for example. It is true that terrorists can heal themselves with penicillin. But I think that we would generally all agree that it is better that humanity knows how to cure disease than not to cure disease.

And it is true that bad people will always be able to do bad stuff, but the question is will good people be able to do good things? And is the intention (of Tor) for good people and regular people to be able to do good things?

I think the important thing here is that the good outweighs the bad. It is a neutral technology in the sense that everyone has anonymity – but it is not neutral in one important way which is that everybody in this room has privacy and anonymity and the ability to resist censorship in a way where previously the power dichotomy was flipped. There’s an asymmetric power relationship and now it’s the other way. And so, for example, if you can’t target someone for exploitation anymore, you’re in a totally different camp. You’re reduced to a different way of behaving and that isn’t equal but it’s not equal in the sense that it empowers every person on the planet to have that which is very very different in a positive sense from some of the things we’ve seen in the past with technology. Because the technology that wires us all together may very well be, for some of us, the very thing that strings us up.

I guess the real question and blocker for me establishing a Tor relay is the position of the Irish Gardaí and legal system and my own potential personal culpability of what may be accessed through that relay. Does anyone have a definitive answer to this?

There are a (small) number of Tor relays in Ireland however:

And quite a few users:

Tor Users in Ireland

To finish, one of the things that surprised me a lot was some of the sponsors of the Tor Project which include: the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Naval Research Laboratory, Google, Human Rights Watch, Electronic Frontier Foundation, DARPA, the National Science Foundation and a number of educational institutions, ISPs and others.