The Unlikely History of Tor

Find out how Tor evolved from military project to anarchist darling in just a few decades.


Tor: The Early Years

The United States armed forces have always relied on a vast network of spies around the globe to gather information. As this information became increasingly digital in the 1990s, the agencies realized how valuable it would be for their assets to communicate online.

No longer would spies need bulky radios, or have to decipher messages in newspapers to receive information. But the US military was also aware that the way the Internet was constructed posed serious threats to the identity and security of their sources. It would be very easy to detect who was communicating with servers operated by US intelligence or military.

Imagine an NGO discovering one of their members frequently logs into the members-only forum of a military base, or a large corporation noticing that an employee is frequently opening up the website of a government agency. Without a global network providing anonymity, spies, police, and other government organizations wouldn’t be able to effectively communicate with their sources or carry out covert investigations.

In the mid-1990s, the US Naval Research Laboratory began to work on a solution. They started to develop a way to route encrypted data through a network of computers placed all around the world. This routing method would hide both the origin and the destination of all the data. After 1997, the project was further developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

But how would such a network authenticate its users? And how would such a network remain undetected? Who else could profit from being able to access the uncensored Internet in an anonymous way?


Public Tool Instead of Secret Weapon

We can wildly speculate about these questions, but for historians, it is difficult to determine what debates the military and intelligence organizations involved went through, and which arguments convinced them to release the software for public use, under a free license, in 2002. The responsibility to maintain the project was handed over to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which then handed control to The Tor Project. The majority of its funds still come from the United States government, though the government of Sweden also contributes significantly.

The reasons for the government’s involvement in the Tor Project are as confusing as they are schizophrenic. The government wants to continue to use the Tor network to obfuscate the source of its attacks, to infiltrate civil rights movements, and to enable its spies to communicate intelligence securely and effectively. On the other hand, they gave the public a tool that would allow anyone to obfuscate the source of their attacks and hide, or information, from the government.


With and Against the Government

But to be able to use this tool without raising suspicion, the government needs to promote the Tor network as a liberating and empowering technology for those who want to break free from authoritarian control. They needed to not just promote it by spreading the word, but also by making the software genuinely effective and endorsed by the same people the government wishes to gather information on.

The government needed to give up power to maintain power. This complicated balance is probably also the reason the US government has made itself a name as both a vivid supporter and ferocious attacker of this technology.

Organizations like the US government are not entirely homogenous, and no doubt consist of actors who honestly try to protect civil rights, as well as those who wish to strengthen authoritarian structures.

the scales of justice

Can a balance be struck between power and freedom?

To use the Tor network to our advantage, we must understand how it works and what the limitations are. Tor’s open-source code allows us to understand exactly what is going on under the hood and audit the implementation of secure encryption.

If you are interested in reading more about the development of Tor, check out the original research paper and the announcement of tor 0.0.0.


Further Reading

Find out more about Tor with these articles:

Featured image: Paul Hill / Dollar Photo Club

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