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[liberationtech] Tor blog post on circumvention

RMacK rebecca.mackinnon at
Sun Feb 13 11:18:11 PST 2011

  Sent to you by RMacK via Google Reader: five minutes to speak via The
Tor Blog blogs by phobos on 2/13/11

I was asked to give a five minute speech to open a panel in front of a
number of policy makers and advisors in Washington, DC in the past few
weeks. The discussion was under Chatham House Rule. A number of people
have encouraged me to publish the speech notes as a blog post, it is as

Here I am, a technologist in a room full of policy people. I'll stick
to what I know and try not to put anyone to sleep in the next five

Technology is agnostic, who uses and how they use it matters. Roads,
cars, phones, email, websites are all technologies used for good and
In the 1930s, the feds and police warned of mass chaos if the interstate
highway system was built in the US. The ability for criminals to quickly
transit between cities was of grave concern. Crime would spread faster,
further, and this would hasten the breakdown of the very fabric of the
American society, community. Time has shown the benefits vastly
the costs. This same principle has shown to be true of the internet
and computer technology. Sure, we may have new kinds of crime with
zombies, phishing, but do we really? Lying, impersonation, and tricking
someone into doing your work are the same crimes they have been for the
past few millenia. It's just that the substrate that is used, has
What are some of the largest companies in the world? GE, IBM, Apple,
Microsoft, Google. What one should or should not do is policy and law,
what one can actually do or not do is technology.

Circumvention, anonymity, and privacy tools used in a free world can be
a minor annoyance, i.e. wikileaks used wikis, ssl, email, and yes, tor,
but in the end, it's an annoyance. We don't have people in the streets
rioting trying to overthrow our govt. Wikipedia uses the same technology
in wikis, ssl, and email. Everyone loves Wikipedia and considers it a
net positive.

The same circumvention, anonymity, and privacy tools are deadly to
repressive regimes. The free flow of information and education are of
great concern to a regime trying to control the horizontal and vertical
of every day life. The tactics a regime can use are legal, technical,
and physical. The regime can switch between tactics, generally
depending upon what's economical and most effective.

Roughly 1 billion people are online in some way. Berkman did a study
that found roughly 2% of that billion know what a proxy is, or even that
technology exists to circumvent internet censorship. 98% of the world
accepts that facebook, google, cnn, and the bbc, are blocked and doesn't
try to find ways around it. This doesn't even broach the topic of online
privacy relating to commercial entities nor law enforcement and
intelligence agencies trying to learn the who, what, where, and how of
your Internet activities.

Arguing about which proxy technology should get all of the funding and
attention is silly. The budgets and adversaries vastly outweigh the
funding and research into proxies. It's not a zero-sum game, and
the different technologies take very different approaches to success;
freegate/ultrasurf, vpns, psiphon, and web proxies play a game of cat
and mouse with ip addresses and sometimes encryption; tor uses the
strategy of R&D and protecting ones anonymity and privacy first, the
secondary effects of this are well-suited to circumvention too. Tor,
freegate, psiphon, and vpns sum up to roughly $50m in funding from the
US govt
of the past few years. Only a very small fraction of that total has
made it to actual technology. Compare that to the billions spent on
black box technology by the DoD and intelligence agencies preparing for
a cyberwar arms race, much like the nuclear arms race, to deter other
nations from attacking us.

I talked to a member of a terrorist organization in Vietnam. He's been
stalked, harassed, and had everything confiscated multiple times by his
government. You know his organization as Deutsche Welle. He's a
reporter. He had no idea how his plans, documents, and contacts were
being discovered and used against him. His ability to understand the
differences between Tor, JAP, and Freegate was like asking which tires
are best for gravel, snow, or tarmac. The question he didn't even know
to ask is, "What are safe and secure computing and online practices?"
to use my analogy, "what car do I want for those tires? the answer is
a rally car." I spent 4 hours going over how the internet works,
how to think about adversaries online, what is ssl, what it means, what
are phishing, viruses, botnets, and state-sponsored malware. By the
end of the 4th hour, he understood how tor is different than a simple
vpn or proxy server, and when to use tor and when it isn't needed. 3.5h
of that discussion was basic operational, computer, and online security
and safe practices.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with a mix of education,
technology, and many, many unanswered questions. This is a young field
overall. As the censorship providers and technologies get better, so
will those circumvention technologies. Educating users about internet
safety, risks, and making the tools vastly easier and safer to use
should be a goal.

Tor published a "10 things to think about circumvention tools" paper to
try to distill what we've learned over the past 10 years of doing this.
In a few of these areas, tor is not the best choice, for now.

What about technology? Isn't it going to save us all? Currently,
freegate/ultrasurf, vpns, and web proxies are looking for money to fund
their growing infrastructure costs. The more users you have, the more
servers, more bandwidth, and more costs you incur. Its a quick way to
spend lots of money and get lots of users. However becoming the ISP for
the world gets very expensive, very quickly as you scale up to hundreds
of millions of users. Look at the infrastructures of google, facebook,
yahoo, and microsoft to see the challenges that lie ahead for these

Tor and "distributed tools" look to improve the research and development
and rely on the scaling of users to both provide the circumvention and
grow to become a self-sustaining ISP to the world. We have only begun
to see the power and effects of these technologies with bittorrent, jap,
skype, freenet, i2p, and tor.

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