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And the project is just catching its stride.
In the year since Edward Snowden’s leaks lifted the veil on the National Security Agency’s massive global surveillance apparatus, the powerful online anonymity tool known as Tor has been downloaded about 120 million times over the past 12 months, according to Andrew Lewman, the Tor project’s executive director.
About two million users from 110 countries connect to the anonymous Tor network every day, more than double what the network handled last year. The United States, with an average of over 320,000 daily Tor users, is the network’s leading country followed by Germany, France, and Brazil.
Beyond the West, Tor has had global impact in the last year. Tens of thousands of people used Tor in Turkey in early 2014, when the Turkish government launched an extensive Internet censorship campaign to quell popular unrest. Tor allowed Turks to circumvent censorship and anonymously access websites like Twitter and YouTube that protesters used to organize demonstrations and spread news.
Tor saturated headlines in 2013, with the FBI‘s takedown of Silk Road, an enormous anonymous drug market that utilized the technology, was accused of doing over $1 billion in business globally. The events surrounding the Silk Road bust—which are being made into a feature film by 20th Century Fox, a documentary by BBC and Vice, at least two books, and even a play—introduced a mainstream audience to both the impressive capabilities and undeniable limitations of Tor.
Tor has played multiple smaller but important roles in privacy that have gained mainstream attention in recent months. The program is being used as a safe-haven for victims of cyberstalking and the project helps domestic abuse survivors regain digital independence. Tor was used by one woman to hide her pregnancy from voracious marketers who seek out pregnant women and then bombard them with baby-related advertisements for years afterwards.
Ultimately, however, Snowden’s leaks must be credited with triggering a worldwide boom in privacy activism that has brought an enormous and sustained spotlight to Tor, a mostly U.S. government-funded project. Revealing the previously unfathomable reach of U.S. spies has led, for the first time since 9/11, to Americans saying they are more worried about civil liberties abuses than terrorism.
“We received numerous requests for interviews, training events and conferences to help people around the globe learn about our technology,” Tor spokeswoman Kelley Misata told the Daily Dot. “With events over the past year, it is raising the awareness of general Internet users and many are looking at privacy and anonymity in a new way.”
More people than ever before are using encryption. Soon after Snowden’s leaks began, the daily adoption rate of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), a relatively easy-to-use but extremely powerful data encryption program, tripled. For newly privacy-conscious Internet users, it only makes sense to hide much of what you do online from the prying eyes of spies, advertisers, and anyone else without permission to peek.
Today, the 33 core people behind the Tor project are hoping to vastly expand the program’s already booming popularity.
Developers are looking for ways to make the anonymity network faster, build an anonymous mobile operating system for smartphone and tablet users, create an easy-to-use instant messenger, and make anonymous online publishing so easy that mom and dad can do it.
The sum of these efforts, if successful, will be a easy and powerful product that brings people real digital anonymity no matter how much they know about computers. That’s how you build a truly democratic movement.
Photo by n_sapiens/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Patrick Howell O'Neill is a notable cybersecurity reporter whose work has focused on the dark net, national security, and law enforcement. A former senior writer at the Daily Dot, O'Neill joined CyberScoop in October 2016. I am a cybersecurity journalist at CyberScoop. I cover the security industry, national security and law enforcement.