[Editor’s Note: Yesterday we published the first part of a conversation with Yasha Levine, author of the newly released book, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet (Click here to buy). We pick up today with Part 2, in which Levine discusses how the web browser Tor may facilitate surveillance, not privacy.]
In 2008, following a request from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Tor developed its Russian deployment plan, translating and redesigning the software for Russian language users. At that time, the Tor Project contacted privacy activists in Russia to see what they thought of the plan.
According to Levine, one of the activists warned Tor that it was unwanted and unnecessary in Russia. He said that while Tor is a useful product in some situations, there wasn’t actually a censorship system on the Russian internet. “Everything’s open, you can go to websites and read anything you want. Why would you want to even deploy Tor in Russia, when it’s unnecessary?”
The activist then asked the representative from Tor if the rumors were true. Was Tor connected to the U.S. State Department?
“Of course, the Tor Project didn’t reply to that question,” Levine says. “Because what could it say, y’know?”
Soon enough, Russia got its own version of Tor. “This coincided with the increasingly aggressive position that the U.S. is taking against Russia,” Levine says. “While I don’t think the Tor Project directly created internet censorship in Russia, it did help foster a climate of paranoia, and the fear that the U.S. government was using this new technology to somehow make Russian intelligence agencies impotent on the internet.”
And it was coupled with popular protests and things that happened in 2010 and 2011 that were organized on Facebook against President Putin and the Parliament there, because there were irregularities in the election. So there were these two things. There was Tor being deployed as a way to allow Russians to bypass government controls that didn’t yet exist. Meanwhile, the Russians were increasingly using social media to organize politically and stage massive rallies against the government. And those two things together helped create a censorship system that exists now and is getting more draconian every day.
This is the other face of Tor, a tool that Washington can use to provoke and ratcheting up paranoia in places like China and Russia. It’s a modern twist on the “containment” policies of the Cold War. And while the software seems to be great for the State Department, there are serious problems with Tor for activists and other end users. According to one report, 81% of Tor users can be de-anonymized through traffic analysis. And properly using Tor involves operational security that is beyond the ability of most people to stick with consistently.
“I believe that Tor is actually not very secure,” Levine says. “In fact, when you dedicate a good amount of law enforcement effort to find out who’s behind a site, it usually pays off, and it’s pretty quick.”
One Tor user who put his faith in the software, only to get burned when it proved to be less than bulletproof, is Ross Ulbricht. Also known as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” Ulbricht is currently serving life without parole for crimes relating to the operation of the infamous dark web drug marketplace, the Silk Road. While he might have been Dread Pirate Roberts in his fantasy life, in real life Ulbricht was no match for the Tor Project’s less-than-perfect software.
“He kept a log,” Levine says, “he’d always be saying things like: Oh, shit. The Tor server crashed again and exposed my IP address. And it would happen multiple times, right? And so you think, this guy’s running a massive illegal business in plain sight, taunting law enforcement. He believes in this software to the point where he’s staking his life on it. And there’s not even a doubt in his head when the server that’s supposed to be impenetrable crashes all the time and leaks his IP address. And that’s how he was caught.”
There are those in the privacy movement who see Ulbricht as a martyr to the surveillance state. Levine sees Ulbricht as a different kind of martyr.
“I see him as a martyr for the bullshit libertarian ideology that is being sold to us,” Levine says. “You know, he believed in this. He believed that a tool made by ten people could protect him from the FBI and the DEA. And the propaganda was so strong, and it was encouraged by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, and they were made into these heroes by organizations like The Intercept and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Of course, some guy, some dweeb from Texas will believe this stuff. So he basically gave up his life chasing a lie.”
In addition to the diplomatic usefulness of Tor, there’s yet another reason that the software is being promoted by the government, nonprofits, and Silicon Valley.
“It gives people the illusion that they’re engaging in meaningful privacy politics,” Levine says, “while actually doing nothing of the sort.” There is little real political activism around internet privacy, because it is “so obsessed with privacy technology, so obsessed with privacy apps that people have effectively outsourced their politics to an app.”
Privacy-by-app is a free market approach, one that runs counter to the realities of political activism and political change. And it’s embraced by corporations precisely because it lets them off the hook. ”There’s no privacy movement to join that says we should limit the amount of information that Google collects on us. There’s no organization that I know of. But there are a lot of organizations promoting Signal and promoting Tor as the way to get your privacy back.” And these organizations are well-funded by Silicon Valley.
“Privacy is a political problem,” Levine says, “not a technological problem. And the only way to solve privacy is politically, not technologically. So this crypto culture is really toxic, and I think it’s done a lot of damage. It has set back the fight to reign in the surveillance power of Silicon Valley.”