- Tor users browse the web assuming no one can trace their movements
- Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have all used the ‘onion router’ system
- FOI reveals strong funding, development links to US government agencies
“Anonymous” web browser Tor might not be anonymous at all, after a journalist was granted a 2500-page Freedom of Information request that claims it receives funding from the US government.
Russian-born US investigative journalist Yasha Levine, a former reporter for Pando Daily and author of a new book, “Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet”, has been on a mission to expose Tor’s claims of anonymity since late 2015.
Developed by The Tor Project and launched in 2002, Tor champions the system of “onion routing” – basically bouncing your internet connection request through many other users’ computers before finally hooking up through an “exit node”.
It didn’t really resonate with mainstream users and media until Wikileaks rose to genuine prominence around 2010, and anti-surveillance activists Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden were associated with its usage a few years later.
For the most part, Tor is best known as a simple way to access websites that aren’t indexed by Google and other popular search engines – the area known as the Dark Web.
But despite its fans’ continued evangelism, Tor simply isn’t the private network it claims to be. Even Facebook offers a special link to the site for people connecting via Tor.
And its team even admitted as much late last year when it announced a major overhaul, saying “the legacy onion system has been around for over 10 years and its age has started to show”.
Levine has made a name for himself – and an enemy of Tor users – by documenting the “conflicted history and relationship between Tor and various branches the US National Security State”.
For starters, the technology behind it was at least partly funded by US military and government contracts, as a way to protect its agents and informants while they shared information.
But Levine’s latest FOI request – sent in the process of writing his new book – reveals how deep Tor was indebted to those roots. He says it received “almost 100 percent” of its funding from the US Navy, the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which supervises Washington-funded media.
He says his request returned information that showed “collaboration between the federal government, the Tor Project and key members of the privacy and Internet Freedom movement on a level that was hard to believe”.
Levine admitted there was no evidence in the documents showing Tor employees were working with US government agencies to share its users’ activities.
But he said Tor would tip off the federal government to security vulnerabilities “before alerting the public, a move that would give the feds an opportunity to exploit the security weakness long before informing Tor users”.
And among the documents was evidence Tor may have planned to offer its tools to countries such as China, Russia and Iran – but as a means for Washington to destabilise their governments.
“Why would the US government fund a tool that limited its own power?” Levine asked on a blog post about the FOI documents. “The answer, as I discovered, was that Tor didn’t threaten American power.
“It enhanced it.”