The Tor network is the preferred channel for journalists who want to keep communication with their sources confidential, and is the Holy Grail for online freedom activists. Sadly though, it’s also a popular meeting place for all kinds of criminals, and, apparently, a cloak and dagger for state agencies that are notorious for eavesdropping on all of the above.
Initially Tor, the software for Internet users looking for privacy and anonymity, was developed for the US government. In the mid-90’s, a group of United States Naval Research Laboratory employees were looking for ways to protect intelligence communications online.
They came up with a solution that allowed sending data through a chain of servers connected in random sequences, which meant that both the source and destination site were untraceable. Tor websites cannot be found or indexed by regular search engines and a special browser is required to access them.
In 2004 TOR’s programming code was released to the public and the project gained support from the Electronic Frontier Foundation – an international digital rights watchdog.
Nowadays, anyone with enough computer resources and free time, can own a Tor relay server, or 'node.'
However, if you take a closer look at characters of the Onion Matrix, besides the likes of Neo the Hacker, you are also just as likely to find the shadow of Agent Smith.
Yasha Levine a reporter with Pando Daily, in his interview to The Zero Hour with Richard Eskow, pointed out that not only was the Tor project launched by the US military intelligence complex, it’s also still being funded by the government:
“I’m talking about the Department of Defense, Department of Defense grants, about CIA-connected propaganda outfits that run Voice of America, I’m talking about State Department grants that are dedicated to promoting Freedom of Democracy abroad, so it’s pretty much a kind of a privatized project of the US government that was initially developed and designed in the US Naval Labs in DC.”
In 2014 a group of authors with personal and professional ties to the Tor network warned that some Tor servers in Germany were under surveillance by the National Security Agency, and NSA is actively tracking anyone who uses privacy and anonymity tools such as the Onion Router.
Others, like Edward Snowden, the whistleblower and former US Government contractor who shed light on the CIA and NSA global surveillance programs, praise the Onion Router for its role in protecting people from global surveillance. Snowden said in his interview with the Tor Project website that the design of the system is structured in such a way that even if the US Government wanted to, it would be unable to subvert it because it's a decentralized authority:
“Without Tor, the streets of the Internet become like the streets of a very heavily surveilled city. There are surveillance cameras everywhere, and if the adversary simply takes enough time, they can follow the tapes back and see everything you've done. With Tor, we have private spaces and private lives, where we can choose who we want to associate with and how, without the fear of what that is going to look like if it is abused.”
Just as with many other technologies, there is a flipside to Onion Routing. Throughout the history of Tor, law enforcement agencies have shut down dozens of hidden websites dedicated to child pornography, smuggling and forgery, drugs and firearms trading.
But despite criticism, Tor activists are certain of one thing — the technology itself does more good than evil, and they are prepared to stand by their beliefs. A recent crowdfunding campaign helped the Tor network gather more than two hundred thousand dollars in donations from more than 5,200 people.
Even 20 years after its launch, for thousands of Internet users The Onion Router technology remains a vital instrument in preserving their online anonymity and security.