The Cable (one of the best sites for foreign policy junkies) has a great piece on how the NSA has not been able to break a piece of software promoted by the State Department. (Not Even the NSA Can Crack the State Dept’s Favorite Anonymous Network)
The Tor system was developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in 2002. Since then it has remained the best way for people to connect to the Internet anonymously. For the pro-democracy people at the State Department, this was a god-send.
Some of the tech savvy folks at State (under former Secretary Clinton) decided that Tor could be used to protect human rights and democracy advocates as they worked to organize and disseminate information.
For years, the U.S. government has offered tools and training to help foreign dissidents and journalists circumvent detection by repressive governments. In particular, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), though its Internet Anti-Censorship (IAC) Division, has provided “anti-censorship, pro-privacy software to users worldwide who are subject to foreign government-sponsored Internet censorship,” according to the BBG’s website.
In some cases, that has meant partnering with companies to improve the security of their software. The board also has worked with the Tor Solutions Group to develop “several enhancements” to its usability and performance for users subject to censorship. The BBG’s budget for Internet anti-censorship issues runs a little over $10 million a year.
Below is a summary how TOR has been and can be used to promote human rights and freedom of access:
- Human rights activists use Tor to anonymously report abuses from danger zones.
- Internationally, labor rights workers use Tor and other forms of online and offline anonymity to organize workers in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- Tor provides the ability to avoid persecution while still raising a voice.
- Many peaceful agents of change rely on Tor for basic privacy during legitimate activities.
- Human Rights Watch recommends Tor to fight Chinese censorship
- Individuals and nonprofits can anonymously criticize corrupt businesses and government officials, thereby protect themselves from retribution.
- Labor organizers can use Tor to reveal information regarding sweatshops that produce goods for western countries and to organize local labor.
- Tor can help activists avoid government or corporate censorship that hinders organization.
But, as with all good things, there is a dark side.
Tor has also become popular with drug dealers, criminal hackers, and peddlers of child pornography. The online drug market Silk Road, which was shut down by federal authorities this week, relied on Tor.
So the NSA and their British colleagues tried to hack into it. With the result being, as the British say, “No joy.”
But that does not mean they will stop trying.
It’s kind of fun to watch. On one side the US government is financing a major project to protect anonymity around the world, while at the same time trying to do away with it.