In defense of anonymity

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.

During protests in Sudan this year, when social media was blocked, Tor Browser usage spiked. It’s also actively used in Uganda where a tax on social media was introduced.

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.

The release of our first official mobile browser, Tor Browser for Android in 2018, is enabling us to reach more people in the parts of the world that need Tor most.

When is anonymity important to you?

  1. Alexander Simon

    Tor is certainly great and it is suitable for anonymous requests or views of adult videos, but to communicate you need to use something else. I for example'm using utopia, of course she still not quite finalized, there is some bugs, but this gives me full anonymity.

  2. Théophile Diyayidi

    L’argument de surveiller tous le monde afin de détecter les criminels est un « argument prétexte » pour s’introduire dans la vie de chacun.

    Mes identités consacrent ma liberté d'expression, donc, elles ne doivent pas être divulguées à qui veut les exploiter sans mon autorisation.

  3. Jimo

    I'd move all my internet traffic to Tor if I wasn't so tech-incompetent. Regular internet-related tech makes my head spin enough as it is.
    It's a wonderful tool, though. If only people were more aware of its existence and taught how to use it...

  4. Brian

    These are compelling arguments for using Tor, I just wonder, if it became more widely used, would the internet giants make a concerted effort to undermine it and are we in a position to repel such an offensive?

  5. Jack McCoy

    Tor is a tool for our freedom God bless Tor. We must create thousands of Tor sites in order to crush the Deep State tyranny by first disallowing that tyranny to target us and frighten off the timid majority

  6. Amit Kumar baijoo kumar

    Join me tor

  7. Anonymous

    The short answer is: 24/7. Tor is fundamental to all of my Internet use.

    Every day, more of the economy of the industrialized world is based on surveillance, especially by Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple. If we don't act now, and act effectively, in a few years the Internet will become cable TV. Worse than useless.

    We need to act in the legislatures, in the courts, and with new technology.

    Tor is absolutely essential. All my communications, email and XMPP, are over Tor, using accounts created using Tor and only accessed using Tor. This is not hard to set up, and it's set-up-once-and-forget-about-it easy.

    I use ZeroNet 24/7, in Tor-only mode.

    I used Tor to create my Diaspora* account, and I use Tor to access it.

    I read ProPublica using its Onion Service site. I often read The New York Times Onion Service site too.

    Tor is an everyday, ordinary part of my life.

  8. Anonymous

    I wonder how many of the people so eager to ban anonymity on the internet, due to their belief that words magically cause some kind of society wide harm, just so happen to wear red and black bandanas over their faces at protests so as to anonymously destroy the lives of physical people in the real world?

  9. Anonymous

    My question to TM if you wrote a "Letter", you know that item that usually consists of paper, a writing tool, an envelope, a stamp, and a delivery service something like the US Postal Service. I believe you still can have the "letter" delivered without a return address on the envelope.
    Would you want the Postal Service to open the "Letter" and to investigate where it came from?

    Many years ago I was told when using the Internet it was like posting all of your emails messages o a very large highway billboard and have anyone who wanted to read them can do so. You want to keep"Letters" private use the US Postal Service it takes a court order for anyone else to open the 'Letter" other than the sender or receiver of a said writing instrument.

  10. Anonymous

    I think that there should be a record of the source of every email kept by the email company. In other words, one must use their real name and address when signing up to use an email provider. So regardless
    of which email addresses they use it can be traced back to the person or company that signed up for the service.

    TM

  11. David S.

    So is Mozilla recommending a browser other than their own Firefox?

  12. Anonymoose

    Agreeing w/Michael and subsequent Horatio comments also..

  13. Rydh Tybyans

    If you live in a society where certain opinions are criminalized, whether formally by the government or informally by Social Justice Warriors and other adherents of the dogma of politically correctness, then you will be able to speak freely only if you can remain anonymous.

    Quite simply, the more dangerous it is to express an unpopular thought, the more the protection of anonymity is needed.

  14. Anonymous

    I totally agree with Stephanie privacy and security is the most important thing.

  15. Max Rawnsley

    I disagree with the idea of anonymity. Using a pseudonym frees a comment from responsibility as a person. While whatever is said may be challenged when its initial source and response are both anonymous neither are accountable for the truth or even an expressed opinion. The opportunity for anonymity is abused by political trolls because they are unknown to those they address.

  16. Horatio Hornblower

    I agree with Michael of a few minutes ago. This is a serious conundrum. However, to make innocent persons more vulnerable to exploitation by preventing them from securing their web presence, does nothing to prevent real criminals from anonymizing themselves.

  17. Michael

    I think the problem with anonymisers like Tor is that they seem to be all or nothing: you either have them, or you don’t. There is no middle ground. I’ll use the analogy of firearms. Firearms can be used for good or evil. Does this mean we ban them? No. Nor do we give everyone unrestricted access to them. Instead we take a moderate approach by restricting such things as the type and capacity, we implement storage laws, require licenses and permits, and we track who owns them. There seems to be no equivalent with anonymisers. We do the equivalent of giving everyone access to a fully automatic assault rifle and hoping they use it for good.

    While anonymisers can clearly be used for good, more needs to be said about the significant role they play in major crimes. Saying “Getting rid of Tor, or even getting rid of the internet, wouldn’t make crime go away” seems a little dismissive of the issue; similar to saying getting rid of guns wouldn’t make crime go away. This is of course true, but it would make a massive difference.

    I don’t mean to say we should get rid of anonymisers or encrypted services. I am genuinely unsure on this issue. But I think we need to do more to address their role in crime.

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