The Tor Project, a private non-profit that underpins the dark web and enjoys
cult status among privacy activists, is almost 100% funded by the US government.
In the process of writing my book Surveillance
I was able to obtain via FOIA roughly 2,500 pages of
— including strategy and contracts and budgets and status updates — between
the Tor Project and its main funder, a CIA spinoff now known as the
Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which oversees America's foreign
broadcasting operations like Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe.
(See the full set of document
I obtained the documents in 2015. By then I had already spent a couple of years
doing extensive reporting on Tor's deeply conflicted ties to the regime change
wing of the U.S. government. By following the money, I discovered that Tor was
not a grassroots. I was able to show that despite its indie radical cred and
claims to help its users protect themselves from government surveillance
online, Tor was almost 100% funded by three U.S. National Security agencies:
the Navy, the State Department and the BBG. Following the money revealed that
Tor was not a grassroots outfit, but a military contractor with its own
government contractor number. In other words: it was a privatized extension of
the very same government that it claimed to be fighting.
This was a shocking revelation.
For years, the Tor Project — along with other U.S. government crypto tools like
Signal — has been seen in almost religious terms by the privacy community as
the only way to protect people from government spying online.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation held up Tor as the digital equivalent of the
First Amendment. The ACLU backed it. Fight for the Future, the hip Silicon
Valley activist group, declared Tor to be “NSA-proof.” Edward Snowden held it
up as an example of the kind of grassroots privacy technology that could defeat
government surveillance online and told his followers to use it. Prominent
award-winning journalists from Wired, Vice, The Intercept, The Guardian and
Rolling Stone — including Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Andy Greenberg —
all helped pump up Tor's mythical anti-state rebel status. Even Daniel
Ellsberg, the legendary whistleblower, was convinced that Tor was vital to the
future of democracy. Anyone who questioned this narrative and pointed to Tor's
lavish government support was attacked, ridiculed, smeared and hounded into
silence. I know because that's what Tor supporters tried to do to me.
But the facts wouldn't go away.
The initial evidence that I had gathered in my reporting left little room for
doubt about Tor's true nature as foreign policy weapon of the U.S. government.
But the box of FOIA documents I received from the BBG took that evidence to a
whole new level.
Why would the U.S. government fund a tool that limited its own power? The
answer, as I discovered, was that Tor didn't threaten American power. It
The FOIA documents showed collaboration between the federal government, the Tor
Project and key members of the privacy and Internet Freedom movement on a level
that was hard to believe:
The documents showed Tor employees taking orders from their handlers in the
federal government, including plans to deploy their anonymity tool in countries
that the U.S. was working to destabilize: China, Iran, Vietnam, Russia. They
showed strategy sessions, discussions about the need to influence news
coverage, and control bad press. They featured monthly updates that described
meetings and trainings with the CIA, NSA, FBI, DOJ and State Department. They
revealed plans to funnel government funding to run Tor "independent" nodes.
Most shockingly, the FOIA documents put under question Tor's pledge that it
would never put in any backdoors that gave the government secret privileged
access to Tor's network under question. (See below.)
The documents conclusively showed that Tor is not independent at all. The
organization did not have free reign to do whatever it wanted, but was kept on
a very short leash and bound by contracts with strict contractual obligations.
It was also required to file detailed monthly status reports that gave the U.S.
government a clear picture of what Tor employees were developing, where they
went and who they saw.
I used many of these documents in my book Surveillance Valley to tell the story
of how privacy technology evolved into a tool of military and corporate power.
But now I'm going further. I am releasing the full cache of FOIA files on Tor
and the BBG to the
I hope that journalists and historians will make use of this information to
explore the relationship between privacy technology, government power and
Silicon Valley economic dominance.
In honor of this release, I'm putting together a little fact-checking primer on
Tor's government ties that's based on these documents. I'll be releasing a
"fact-check" every few days, starting with the first:
CLAIM #1: Tor does not provide backdoors to the U.S. government
Read more: Tor Files <https://surveillancevalley.com/blog/tag:Tor%20Files>
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