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Tor Project/ | Remix by Jason Reed

The woman who aims to take Tor mainstream

The Tor Project has an image problem. Shari Steele knows how to fix it.


William Turton


Posted on Feb 16, 2016   Updated on May 27, 2021, 5:15 am CDT

Tor is essential,” Shari Steele says over the phone. “Tor is so critically important. We can’t afford to not have Tor.”

That’s the kind of thing someone might say when all hell is about to break loose, but Steele sounds downright ecstatic. Over her career, she has taken on United States Department of Justice (DOJ), the National Security Agency (NSA), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). She built the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) into an international powerhouse for protecting online rights.

Today, she has a new mission, perhaps her heaviest challenge yet: Take the Internet’s most powerful privacy tool mainstream.

“She built an engine and she built a place where talented people wanted to come.”

Steele is the new executive director of the Tor Project, the nonprofit behind Tor, a tool that offers users the ability to completely shield their identities online. Beloved in certain corners of the Internet, Tor’s anonymity cuts both ways. Thieves, murders, child pornographers, drug dealers—these are the shady characters most people likely think of when they think of Tor, if they think of Tor at all. Steele’s job is to transform Tor’s image in the public eye, build its organization, and convince the world that strong privacy—not the weak kind you get through tweaking your Facebook settings—is a necessity in the 21st century.

Launched by the U.S. Navy in 2002 as a way to protect military communications, Tor technology has since become a cornerstone of the free and open Internet. Tor—originally known as “the Onion Router”—uses advanced, open-source software that allows anyone to use the Web anonymously. By encrypting a user’s connection and routing it though three out of some 7,000 random Tor “nodes”—computers connected to the Tor network—that are maintained by volunteers around the world, Tor grants a level of anonymity and security impossible to achieve with a normal Web browser.

The Tor Project, which develops and maintains the Tor network and software, launched in 2006. Over the past decade, the Tor Project team has turned a cumbersome technology almost unusable by the average person into a fully featured browser that’s available on virtually every platform and works like Chrome or Firefox. 

Tor has become essential for people in oppressive regimes like Iran, Russia, and China, where information is censored and free speech only happens beyond the reach of governments.

“They’re incredibly intelligent people,” Steele says of the Tor staff and community. “Like, really, really bright.” The problem, says Steele, is that the Tor team has resorted to using “masking tape and wire” to solve their operational challenges.

“It really is a case,” she says, “of really brilliant people coming up with an answer of how to solve something when they don’t really have any knowledge of how it’s done in other places.”

Because of this institutional blindspot, a significant part of Steele’s initial work involves peeling off the masking tape and installing some more robust mechanisms to ensure the Tor Project’s structure is solid. It’s a task Steele knows all too well.

“They’re kicking butt in what they’ve developed, especially considering it’s this ragtag group of serious, brilliant technologists,” Steele says of the Tor team, which includes both staff and volunteer developers. “You could see from the outside that they were so critically in need of some leadership—not leadership on the program side. It was the leadership on the organizational side. I looked at it and thought they couldn’t fail.”

Steele joined the EFF in 1992, two years after the organization’s founding, as a staff attorney, after spotting an ad posted at the Georgetown Law campus.

“My husband—at the time, boyfriend—who was a techie, was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so cool,’” says Steele. (Her husband, Bill Vass, is currently vice president of engineering at Amazon Web Services.) “The World Wide Web didn’t even exist at the time! There were bulletin board systems, that was kind of where the free speech stuff was happening.”

After eight years with the EFF, in 2000, Steele took lead as the organization’s executive director. This is when she first learned the importance or an organization’s image. 

“When I first took over at EFF, we had a rift with folks in D.C., and they were spreading words about us being hippie weirdos out in San Francisco,” Steele says. “And it took some time to kind of build back up the reputation of the organization.”

The EFF Steele joined 24 years ago looks nothing like it does today. “When I got to EFF, it was really hurting,” Steele says. “We were down to five employees.” Guided by Steele, the EFF became the preeminent digital-rights organization in the U.S., made up of world-class lawyers, technologists, and activists who have their hands in most major legal cases that involve digital privacy, copyright, and user security.

Steele’s speciality, her former colleagues say, is empowering those around her to do their best work. Cindy Cohn, who took the reins as EFF’s executive director after Steele’s departure, worked with Steele at the organization for 22 years. “The thing that struck me about Shari from the very beginning was that she had a huge heart,” Cohn says, “a huge passion for making sure that we built the Internet that supported people, that supported freedom and privacy, that the possibilities of the digital world made for freedom and democracy were actually happening.”

“The World Wide Web didn’t even exist at the time! There were bulletin board systems, that was kind of where the free speech stuff was happening.” 

Cohn says Steele has an innate ability to tackle her work with a “sunny approach” that adds levity to the dense work of defending the Internet and its users against powerful forces.

“We were always doing very serious work,” says Cohn, who worked with Steele on one of the EFF’s first high-profile cases, Bernstein v. United States, a 1999 case that dealt with the exportation of cryptography outside of the United States. “We were fighting the NSA, but Shari always … created an atmosphere where things were positive, it was fun, and we took good care of the people who worked with us.”

Under Steele’s leadership, the EFF hired a staff technologist—a first for a nonprofit, according to Steele and Cohn—bolstering the organization’s legal work with developers who built free and open-source products that empowered their users to protect their privacy or security. They also made provocative statements. One of their first projects, the DES cracker, was able to crack a popular encryption algorithm in just a matter of days, essentially proving that the algorithm wasn’t strong enough to be secure.

“We couldn’t just be a bunch of policy wonks or lawyers trying to do tech,” Cohn says. “You needed to have the techs involved.” More recently, the EFF released browser plugins like Privacy Badger, which disables trackers that follow users across the Web, and HTTPS everywhere, which forces a user’s browser to always fetch an encrypted version of a webpage, if available.

“It’s really not an exaggeration to say that [Steele] built the EFF,” says Cohn. “She built this incarnation from 2000. She’s really the heart of it. She’s not in the spotlight. … But instead, what she did was that she built an engine, and she built a place where talented people wanted to come.”

When Steele left the EFF last year, she was in dire need of some time off. Before she could get comfortably away from the Internet’s relentless grind, however, the Tor Project announced it was looking for a new executive director.

“Right away, I was like, ‘I’m exhausted, no way,’” says Steele. Wendy Seltzer, policy counsel at the World Wide Web Consortium and a visiting fellow with Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, tried to recruit Steele for the job, but Steele “avoided her all summer,” she says. After her kids returned to school, Steele found herself with nothing to do but “unpack boxes” after moving her family into a new house.

“I was like, I don’t want to unpack boxes! That’s not what I want to do with my life right now,” Steele says. “Then I get a note from Wendy. The timing was perfect. She sends me this note asking to talk, and I’m like, ‘Hmm, yeah, let’s talk.’ We talk, and she tells me about the job.”

Steele sat on the idea for the weekend. By Sunday night, she had made her decision.

“I thought, this is going to be a lot of work,” says Steele. “‘Am I really ready to go back?’ And that was kind of the conversation I was having with my friends. I said, ‘Yeah, you know what, I’m ready,’ so I threw my hat in the ring.”

In addition to her experience building great teams, Steele’s other area of expertise is fundraising—something the Tor Project desperately needs. The EFF’s budget this year, according to Cohn, is $10 million. “That’s Shari,” she says. With greater funding, the Tor Project could afford more developers and paid volunteers, which in turn would mean better, faster, and more secure Tor technology—a necessary improvement after a recent attack on Tor, led by Carnegie Mellon University and funded by the FBI, allowed law enforcement to unmask users.

All of which leads back to the Tor Project’s greatest obstacle: its infamous image.

So far, the organization has struggled to counter the notion that Tor is equivalent to the Dark Net—the name for sites and services on the Tor network that promote or enable illegal activity. When I mention Tor’s notorious image in the mainstream, Steele turns from chipper and excited to solemn and direct.

“Yes, this is a problem,” she says. “I think it has worn down a lot of the people at Tor so that it almost becomes self-fulfilling—that that’s the way we get described because we are fearful, and almost expect the way we are going to be described.”

At the heart of Tor’s image problems are what’s known as “hidden services,” sites that are only accessible through the Tor network. Hidden services have been home to drug and gun marketplaces, child pornography forums, fraud and hacking sites, and sites where you can place bets on when a high-profile target may be assassinated. While the media tends to focus on the nefarious elements Tor enables, hidden services make up only about 1 percent of the Tor network, according to Steele, and are in no way operated by the Tor Project.

“I’m trying to teach everyone that we need to recognize that we are doing the work of the angels.”

“I’m trying to teach everyone that we need to recognize that we are doing the work of the angels,” Steele says. “What we are providing is really important and really great, and there happen to be uses that are residual that aren’t what we’re doing. We’re not creating this for [illegal activity]. And OK, maybe it’s being used for that, but that’s not what we’re about!”

The key to counteracting this negative narrative about Tor, says Steele, is to reinforce the positive things Tor does “over and over again—and make sure it’s a positive message.”

But changing the outlook and message of the Tor team is “tough,” Steele says. “People really do feel like they’ve been attacked. Not just the network, but the community is always under attack.”

As Steele begins to tackle the reputation challenges facing the Tor Project, its staff has reason to feel hopeful. Since Edward Snowden’s 2013 release of secret NSA documents that revealed the full breadth of the spy agency’s surveillance powers, the use of Tor has exploded. Its increased popularity has led to more mainstream adopters. Tor is now home to its own literary journal, Facebook, and it even hosts a version of ProPublica, an investigative news outlet.

Despite the hurdles remaining in Tor’s path, supporters like Steele and Cohn say its potential pushes everything else aside.

“I just think the sky’s the limit,” Cohn says, “because I just think that Tor is so important to our movement that saves lives.”

Photo via Tor Project | Remix by Jason Reed

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*First Published: Feb 16, 2016, 1:56 pm CST