Using Anonymity for good, or Why Tor Matters

During the last years, there has been a disturbing trend of law enforcement agencies (both european and american) demonizing the Tor project and anonymity in general, and Tor Hidden Services specifically. Recently, during 31c3, Jacob Appelbaum (a Tor developer and generally awesome person) put out a call to the community to start conversations about anonymity in order to inform people about why anonymity is important and how it is useful not only to (perceived or actual) criminals, but also to regular people. This is my (public) contribution.

First, I will briefly explain how Tor in general and hidden services specifically work. If you are familiar with Tor and hidden services, feel free to skip ahead.

What is Tor?

“Tor” stands for “The Onion Router”. It is a program that can be used to browse the internet anonymously (the websites you visit cannot identify you unless you provide them with identifying information yourself, e.g. by logging in). It also hides which websites you are visiting from your internet company. This is achieved (slightly simplified) by sending your internet traffic through a number of servers all over the globe before delivering it to the website you are visiting.

Tor also supports a system called “hidden services“. A hidden service is a website (or any other type of service, like a mail or chat server) that can only be reached over the Tor network. When used properly, the server never knows the identity of users connecting to it, and the users never know the location of the server they are talking to.

The usual caveats apply: Tor cannot protect your identity if you use it incorrectly. For example, you will obviously not be anonymous if you log into facebook via Tor. Read the warnings on the download site.

Why use Tor?

There are many reasons why you may want to use Tor, and the overwhelming majority of them do not involve anything that you may find questionable. For example, Tor is used…

  • …by dissidents who want to get around state censorship (e.g. in China, Syria, …)
  • …by whistleblowers and journalists alike to protect themselves and their sources
  • …by privacy-concious people who want to avoid the omnipresent tracking on many websites
  • The list goes on. The Tor project has a nice list of potential uses and users of their software.

But I was told criminals use Tor!

Yes, there are people who are using Tor to hide their identities when extorting money, or to buy and sell drugs. It is in the nature of an anonymity system that it is impossible to prevent malicious use while still allowing those with “legitimate” (however you would define that) interests to use it. In the end, it all comes down to a tradeoff between the good and the bad that Tor does. How many drug smuggling rings equal one Edward Snowden? How many chinese dissidents equal one criminal using Tor to extort money?

In my personal opinion, Tor does more good than it does bad. You may think differently. Just keep in mind that Tor does save lifes under oppressive regimes, and that it enables people like Edward Snowden to come forward with at least a small measure of safety. You will have to decide if it is worth loosing all of that to cut off a channel for drug trade. In the end, there will always be ways to more-or-less-securely trade drugs, but there may not be any way for dissidents to safely use the internet.

And what about those hidden services?

Hidden services enjoy a particularily bad reputation as a place where only drug traders and pedophiles hang out, and it is true that there is a lot of awful stuff hosted on hidden services. But again, there are a lot of different ways these hidden services can be used. Here are two ways in which I personally use hidden services:

  • I have my own Server for instant messaging using Jabber / XMPP, and I connect to it using a Tor hidden service. That way, my server does not know my current IP address (which is good, in case it ever gets taken over by criminals), and it also prevents anyone watching the network from identifying that I am using it at all. Additionally, it gives the other users of my server a way to use it and still be sure that I cannot track them. I would obviously never even try to track them, but I firmly believe in minimizing the amount of damage any one party can do, no matter how trustworthy.
  • I also have a seperate hidden service I use to access my server using the SSH protocol (a protocol used to remotely administrate my server), as lately, doubt has been cast on the security of the SSH protocol. By using hidden services, I am adding another layer of security to the connection, which helps keep my server secured against the aforementioned criminals.

In both cases, I am not interested in hiding the location or identity of my server (as that is trivial to determine using the protocols themselves), but more interested in hiding myself from my server, and hiding the fact that I am talking to the server. This makes it slightly harder to identify me, and much harder to identify which channels I am using to communicate (another case of minimizing the information available to any single party). And, most importantly, it adds another layer of protection to the information I am sending.

Closing notes

I hope that this article helped you understand that there are many different ways people use anonymity tools like Tor, and many of them are completely acceptable by every sane person. So, what I am asking of you is simple: Keep this in mind when you next hear politicians railing against anonymity: For every criminal, pedophile and “terrorist” using Tor, there is at least one dissident, activist, journalist, or server operator using the same software for good.

Life is not as easy as people make it sound. Why should the issue of anonymity be any different?

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