When bad things happen over the internet, anonymity often gets the blame.
It may seem logical to think that if we could identify each and every person online, we could prevent crime. In every part of the world, there are authorities who argue that encryption should be banned or that anonymous sites should be eradicated. The reality is that anonymity often protects victims of crime, in a wide range of areas, from human rights, to banking security, military defense, or personal safety from stalking and domestic violence.
Constant surveillance facilitated by digital technology, whether by corporations or governments, is harmful to society and chilling to civil liberties. Our ability to communicate, work, and learn on the internet free from the glare of others enables very good things to happen.
Being untraceable on the internet takes effort. For that, Tor is one of the most important anonymity and censorship circumvention tools. An estimated 2 million daily users use it to hide the origin and destination of internet traffic as they browse the Web and communicate around the world.
In the context of concerns over terror and crime on the internet, Tor is often vilified. In the daily position of defending anonymity is Stephanie Ann Whited, the communications director of the Tor Project.
Q: What are questions you get from journalists that frustrate you?
It’s frustrating to be asked questions based on the misunderstanding that Tor “is the dark web.”
Tor onion services can be used to publish and share information online with a high degree of privacy and security without being indexed by search engines. You can’t just visit them in any browser. Calling this “the dark web” and assuming everything published anonymously online is bad, is a huge disservice to an underappreciated technology that saves lives.
With onion services, women can share and access women’s health resources in countries where it is outlawed. Activists can organize with less fear of surveillance when there may be life or death consequences. Whistleblowers reporting corruption can communicate securely. Onion services have also been used to create a more secure way to access popular sites like The New York Times, Facebook, or ProPublica. They all have .onion addresses.
Q: What makes your work feel most meaningful?
Internet freedom is in decline around the world, and being part of a force for good that allows people to have private access to the open Web is hugely important to me. Millions of people around the world rely on Tor Browser and onion services for private and secure communication in their day-to-day lives.
Some people rightly just want to limit the amount of data big corporations and advertisers can collect about them. For others, Tor is a vital tool against government oppression.
Q: When you hear about the serious crimes that really do happen on onion sites (the so-called “darknet”) does it make you doubt your sense of purpose?
It can be upsetting to hear Tor was used in a serious crime, but it doesn’t make me doubt the software or the good that is only possible with anonymity tools like Tor. The reality is that criminal activity exists on all kinds of sites, whether they were configured using onion services or not. Getting rid of Tor, or even getting rid of the internet, wouldn’t make crime go away.
Q: Has press coverage about Tor changed over time?
Yes, and I think it’s because we’ve improved the consistency and frequency of our communications and made Tor more user-friendly. Also, a lot more people are coming to understand how their daily online activities are exploited by tech giants. Even when other browsers offer more privacy protections than they used to, the full benefits of Tor Browser are unmatched. The press is beginning to highlight that more often without caveats.
Q: What are exciting things that are happening in the world of Tor?
Tor is more user-friendly and faster than ever. A decentralized network of over 7,000 volunteer-run servers around the world make up the backbone of our software, and we just surpassed over 40 GiB/s total bandwidth thanks to our community of volunteer relay operators.