Internet Freedom And Regime Change: A Talk With Yasha Levine, Author Of “Surveillance Valley” Part 1


Surveillance by governments or corporations is not an accidental byproduct of networking technology. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that surveillance is “baked in,” that it’s a feature of the wired world we live in. While the founding myth of Silicon Valley focuses on apolitical geniuses “inventing the future” in suburban California garages, the reality is that the internet was born in Pentagon-sponsored projects with tangible military objectives. The internet might be file sharing and email, but it’s also PRISM and DHS Fusion Centers.

 The interface between academia, corporations, and the military that created the internet during the Cold War isn’t just the stuff of history books, either. Even today, the whole “crypto culture” of Silicon Valley plays an important part in the machinations of the Pentagon and the State Department.

Tor is an anonymous browsing tool promoted by Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and others as a way to strike back against the ever-encroaching surveillance state. The truth is that Tor was never all that reliable to begin with, and it’s far more useful to the State Department as a tool of containment and regime change than it ever was to political activists in the United States.

 Yasha Levine is an investigative journalist and the author of Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet (PublicAffairs Books). We spoke recently about the role of Tor in State Department “soft power” plays abroad, and how its adoption by activists might actually impede true political change at home.

 Tor (short for “the onion router”) is software that bounces web traffic through a random selection of servers, making it difficult (if not impossible) for the computer on the receiving end to determine where the data originated. It first came on Levine’s radar with the sudden arrival of Edward Snowden on the world stage in 2013.

 “In that very first image,” he says, “we saw that he had a Tor Project sticker on his laptop.” And as Snowden told the world press his story, he emphasized the important role that Tor played in the leaks, allowing him to steal a remarkable number of documents from the NSA. “The Tor project was presented as this incredible cloaking tool, an anonymity tool that really equalized power between an individual and the most powerful surveillance agency in the world.”

 This struck Levine as an odd juxtaposition — a whistleblower like Snowden promoting software that was being paid for by the U.S. government. The fact that Tor began as a product of Naval Intelligence has never been a secret. However, the amount of funding that the Tor Project receives from the government, and the nature of the relationship between Tor and the United States government, was still something of a mystery when Levine began filing FOIA requests with the various different government agencies that dealt with the Tor Project or provided funding.

“As best as I could have calculated,” he says, based on his research, “anywhere from 90-99 percent” of Tor’s funding comes from a State Department agency called the Broadcasting Board of Governors, through the something called the Open Technology Fund. The BBG is essentially a government propaganda agency, engaged in “propaganda warfare, subversion, and soft-power projection against countries and foreign political movements deemed hostile to US interests.” And Tor is not the only recipient of Open Technology Fund money. Open Whisper Systems (makers of the Signal encrypted chat app), CryptoCat, LEAP (an email encryption startup) and others have received funding as well.

According to the Tor Project and its supporters, the Open Technology Fund is a representative of the “good” government, which cares about human rights and free speech, while agencies like the NSA and CIA are “bad” government. If that theory doesn’t work for you, then try on this for size: The big, slow, almond-sized lizard brain of Uncle Sam doesn’t really understand the internet; the government is too dumb to understand that it’s funding its own defeat through the the hacktivists of the Tor Project.

Levine disputes this, basing his conclusions on his extensive research and on “thousands and thousands” of emails and contracts between the Tor Project and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (received through FOIA requests):

It’s not a picture of an aloof government agency that’s giving some money to this spunky nonprofit and doesn’t even know what it’s doing. The reality is that there is extremely tight integration between the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Tor Project. I mean, there’s almost daily email communication. There are progress reports every month that are being filed by the Tor project, highlighting what their employees did that month, where they went, who they talked to, what they talked about. And there are updates on the progress of its contractual obligations to the Broadcasting Board of Governors…When Tor gets money from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, it comes not as an open-ended grant, but as a contract for work. And that contract has clauses, and those clauses have to be met for the money to continue to come the next month. The work that the Tor Project does is very specific, and it comes out of the geopolitical objectives that the Broadcasting Board of Governors is trying to push that month or that year.

He’s not describing a radical hacktivist cell, even if that’s how the Tor Project and its supporters see themselves. He’s describing a defense contractor, a nonprofit corporation with a federal contractor number, taking money from the federal government to develop software for its own use.

Tor, Levine says, is “a boutique cybersecurity firm.”

It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly how intelligence agencies and the military uses Tor — who knows what the hell really goes on in the hallways of Langley, Fort Meade, or the Pentagon? — but there are a few specific military applications of the technology that Levine knows about. One example is open source intelligence gathering. Tor is the software that Chelsea Manning used to monitor online extremist groups while she was stationed in Iraq. The program allowed her to mask her identity, so that the hosts of radical Islamic websites and forums wouldn’t see that they’d been visited by someone with a U.S. military IP address.

 Another example would be the likely use of Tor by intelligence agencies to hide the physical infrastructure of military intelligence networks and servers. “In the same way that Tor hides a server that’s running a dark web marketplace like the Silk Road,” Levine says, “the same can be done for a CIA intelligence drop. If you want someone to put information somewhere but not be able to trace it, you would run it as a hidden service on the Tor network. Once you go to the Tor cloud, you can disappear from view.”

 The only reason the Tor software was released to the public at all is because it only works when a large, disparate group of users exists to help obscure traffic for the entire network. Sure, it’s a shame that drug dealers and software pirates and kiddie porn brokers are using Tor, but those criminals are precisely what allows the government to better mask its own web traffic.

 In addition to providing cover to spies online, Tor has been used as a “soft power” tool by the State Department since the turn of the 21st century. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to Levine, “America kind of re-doubled its propaganda efforts aimed at undermining communist ideology and focused them on China.” Radio Free Asia (a CIA project from the 1950s) was taken out of mothballs and used to broadcast anti-communist propaganda aimed at China. This prompted China to jam the stations. In turn, Radio Free Asia began broadcasting on the internet. Once that started happening, China began blocking those websites, which it saw as foreign propaganda.

“That was during the Bush administration, which saw the Chinese actions as an attack on free trade,” Levine says. “You know, the internet’s not just a communications medium, it’s also a marketplace. The Bush administration saw the censorship as almost like an act of war, and it began to scratch around and fund various organizations that were developing anti-censorship technology, tools that could be used to punch through the Great Firewall.”

 Tor was first released to the public in 2003. “It was a tool that was very attractive to the government,” Levine says, “as a kind of a digital crowbar that could jimmy open the Great Firewall and prevent China from regulating its own internet space.”



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