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U.K. Parliament says banning Tor is unacceptable and impossible
Sorry, David Cameron.
Just months after U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said he wants to ban encryption and online anonymity, the country’s parliament today released a briefing saying that the such an act is neither acceptable nor technically feasible.
The briefing, issued by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, specifically referenced the Tor anonymity network and its notorious ability to slide right around such censorship schemes.
It’s important to note that briefings from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology are not legally binding, nor are they necessarily indicative of Parliament’s attitudes as a whole. However, the office is an important part of Parliament and serves to give independent analysis of public policy issues for politicians. Crucially, this briefing does explicitly state that there is “widespread agreement” banning Tor is not acceptable policy nor is it feasible technologically.
Tor has about 100,000 users at any given moment within the United Kingdom.
“There is widespread agreement that banning online anonymity systems altogether is not seen as an acceptable policy option in the U.K.,” the briefing explained. “Even if it were, there would be technical challenges.”
The briefing cites Tor’s ongoing battle with Chinese censorship and describes “secret entrance nodes to the Tor Network, called ‘bridges’, which are very difficult to block.”
In 2012, U.K. police said the Tor anonymity service was used by “many” pedophiles in order to trade child abuse images. In the same parliamentary briefing, those police have changed their tunes significantly.
Tor “plays only a minor role in the online viewing and distribution of indecent images of children,” according to the briefing, quoting the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP) of the U.K. National Crime Agency.
The briefing’s authors drove home the assertion by saying that while 1,624 domains were found to have child abuse material on the open Web, just 36 were found on the Dark Net—about 2 percent.
“Tor is less popular among offenders because it decreases the speed at which images can be downloaded,” according to British police.
The briefing also considers modifying Tor to better fit their needs.
“Some argue for a Tor without hidden services, because of the criminal content on some THS [Tor Hidden Services],” it reads. “However, [Tor Hidden Services] also benefit non-criminal Tor users because they may add a further layer of user security. If a user accesses a THS the communication never leaves the Tor Network and the communication is encrypted from origin to destination. Therefore, sites requiring strong security, like whistleblowing platforms are offered as THS. Also, computer experts argue that any legislative attempt to preclude THS from being available in the UK would be technologically infeasible.”
The briefing, which aims to introduce the concept of the Dark Net to politicians who may be unfamiliar, discusses both legal and illegal uses of Tor as well as similar anonymity programs like I2P and FreeNet.
While criminal use of Tor is discussed at length, the briefing also cautions readers to look skeptically at claims that Tor is used mostly for child abuse. Good thing, too: That claim is false.
You can read the full briefing below.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to provide additional clarity and context.
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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.