“On condition of anonymity” is one of the most important phrases in journalism. At Tor, we are working on making that more than a promise.
The good news: The Internet has made it possible for journalists to talk to sources, gather video and photos from citizens, and to publish despite efforts to censor the news.
The bad news: People who were used to getting away with atrocities are aware that the Internet has made it possible for journalists to talk to sources, gather video and photos from citizens, and to publish despite efforts to censor the news.
New digital communication means new threats
Going into journalism is a quick way to make a lot of enemies. Authoritarian regimes, corporations with less-than-stellar environmental records, criminal cartels, and other enemies of the public interest can all agree on one thing: Transparency is bad. Action to counter their activities starts with information. Reporters have long been aware that threats of violence, physical surveillance, and legal obstacles stand between them and the ability to publish. With digital communication, there are new threats and updates to old ones to consider.
Eavesdroppers can reach almost everything. We rely on third parties for our connections to the Internet and voice networks.The things you ask search engines, the websites you visit, the people you email, the people you connect to on social networks, and maps of the places you have been carrying a mobile phone are available to anyone who can pay, hack, or threaten their way into these records. The use of this information ranges from merely creepy to harmful.
You may be disturbed to learn about the existence of a database with the foods you prefer, the medications you take, and your likely political affiliation based on the news sites you read. On the other hand, you may be willing to give this information to advertisers, insurance companies, and political campaign staff anyway. For activists and journalists, having control over information can be a matter of life and death. Contact lists, chat logs, text messages, and hacked emails have been presented to activists during interrogations by government officials. Sources have been murdered for giving information to journalists.
If a journalist does manage to publish, there is no guarantee that people in the community being written about can read the story. Censorship of material deemed offensive is widespread. This includes opposition websites, information on family planning, most foreign websites, platforms for sharing videos, and the names of officials in anything other than state-owned media. Luckily, there are people who want to help ensure access to information, and they have the technology to do it.
Improving privacy and security
Tor guards against surveillance and censorship by bouncing your communications through a volunteer network of about 3,000 relays around the world. These relays can be set up using a computer on a home connection, using a cloud provider, or through donations to people running servers.
When you start Tor, it connects to directory authorities to get a map of the relays. Then it randomly selects three relays. The result is a tunnel through the Internet that hides your location from websites and prevents your Internet service provider from learning about the sites you visit. Tor also hides this information from Tor — no one relay has all of the information about your path through the network. We can’t leak information that we never had in the first place.
The Tor Browser, a version of Firefox that pops up when you are connected to the Tor network, blocks browser features that can leak information. It also includes HTTPS Everywhere, software to force a secure connection to websites that offer protection for passwords and other information sent between you and their servers.
Other privacy efforts
Tor is just one part of the solution. Other software can encrypt email, files, and the contents of entire drives — scrambling the contents so that only people with the right password can read them. Portable operating systems like TAILS can be put on a CD or USB drive, used to connect securely to the Internet, and removed without leaving a trace. This is useful while using someone else’s computer at home or in an Internet cafe.
The Guardian Project produces open-source software to protect information on mobile phones. Linux has come a long way in terms of usability, so there are entire operating systems full of audiovisual production software that can be downloaded free of charge. This is useful if sanctions prevent people from downloading copies of commercial software, or if cost is an issue.
These projects are effective. Despite well-funded efforts to block circumvention technology, hundreds of thousands of people are getting past firewalls every day. Every video of a protest that ends up on a video-sharing site or the nightly news is a victory over censorship.
There is plenty of room for optimism, but there is one more problem to discuss. Open-source security software is not always easy to use. No technology is immune to user error. The responsibility for this problem is shared by developers and end users.
The Knight Foundation is supporting work to make digital security more accessible. Usability is security: Making it easier to use software correctly keeps people safe. We are working to make TAILS easier to use. Well-written user manuals and video tutorials help high-risk users who need information about the risks and benefits of technology in order to come up with an accurate threat model. We will be producing more educational materials and will ask for feedback to make sure they are clear.
When the situation on the ground changes, we need to communicate with users to get them back online safely. We will expand our help desk, making help available in more languages. By combining the communication skills of journalists and computer security expertise of software developers, we hope to protect reporters and their sources from interference online.
You can track our progress and find out how to help at https://blog.torproject.org and https://www.torproject.org/getinvolved/volunteer.html.en.
Karen Reilly is Development Director at The Tor Project, responsible for fundraising, advocacy, general marketing, and policy outreach programs for Tor. Tor is a software and a volunteer network that enables people to circumvent censorship and guard their privacy online. She studied Government and International Politics at George Mason University.