The Interview: Runa Sandvik, the Tor Project and Forbes writer

9 Apr 2015

Journalists and governments are engaged in a censorship arms race, believes Runa Sandvik, a security researcher who contributes to the Tor Project and who writes for Forbes.

Sandvik, who will be in Dublin later this month to speak at the Smart Business Show on 22 and 23 April, is a technology adviser to both the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the TrueCrypt Audit project.

Tor, or The Onion Router as it was originally termed, has been described by the NSA as “the king of high-secure, low-latency internet anonymity” and depending on your point of view is both a blessing and a curse.

It is a curse in the mind of governments that want to suppress free speech and has been tainted in the public imagination by its use by criminals selling drugs in exchange for bitcoin, and it has also been linked with the dark web.

It is, however, a blessing for people who wish to see the truth emerge from behind walls of censorship built by repressive regimes. Journalists have used it to get stories out and it has been used by activists and freedom fighters to warn the world of brutality and outrages around the world.

Tor has been a critical tool in many of the revelations of our day, from Wikileaks to the revelations about surveillance by Edward Snowden.

Tor is used by around 2.5m people worldwide, is manned by a volunteer network and uses 6,000 relays to conceal a user’s location.

Sandvik, who hails from Norway, got involved in Tor when she researched the platform during an internship at Google. She has since evolved to become an authority on Tor and writes regularly on privacy issues for Forbes.

From a military research project to the ultimate open source tool for freedom fighters

“Tor originally was created by the US Navy Research Lab and received a lot of funding from the US government,” Sandvik said in relation to the work by Paul Syverson, Michael Reed and David Goldschlag.

The original purpose of Tor was to protect US intelligence computing online and Onion routing methods were further developed by DARPA in 1997.

Sandvik said that the Tor Project grew in popularity because rather than just being used by the military it could be used by journalists, students, activists, lawyers and anyone who wanted to communicate anonymously.

“If you start trying to control what people are doing or limit certain types of persons from using the system no one would use it. But of course not having a way to track down or control its use also means it can unfortunately be used by people who are also intent on doing bad things.”

Sandvik said that the Tor project left the top secret confines of DARPA and became open source in 2002.

“In the beginning people started using the tool for being able to visit sites without being capable of being tracked online. You could read papers without anyone knowing it was you and finding out you were interested in a specific set of articles, for example.

“But in 2006 it became clear that Tor could also be used for censorship circumvention. If you were in China, using Tor would be very useful, and it became very useful during the Arab Spring to get information out without a crackdown from the authorities. And now, post-Snowden, the importance of tools such as Tor are essential for journalists who want to safely research different types of materials, and other purposes.

“Today there is definitely more of a focus on the visibility of anonymous sources – read any article on The Intercept that comes from an anonymous source.

“Because these tools are more visible, more people are willing to come forward and feel safer to step up and blow the whistle on wrongdoing.”

Protecting sources is now a technology challenge for journalists

Sandvik said that she spends a lot of time working with journalists in Norway who want to protect their sources.

“That contract – protecting the source – has become a lot more of a technical challenge. It is no longer good enough for a journalist to say ‘I will protect my source’. That journalist will need to understand the challenges that technology introduces here.”

Sandvik has a point. In the past you could give your word but now with the potential for voice communications, emails, social media messages and all kinds of electronic communications being gathered by the NSA or targeted by hackers, it’s not a challenge of honour, it is a challenge of technology.

Sandvik said that growing up in Scandinavia she felt she was in a bubble where everyone believed people do the right things and no one is lying to you. “It was a protected bubble but it no longer exists.

“I lived in Norway for 20-something years and did a BA in computer science there, and it was right before my final year that I got involved in the Tor project in 2009 while working on a paid project by Google, and it was initially interesting how you could use technology and cryptography in such a way as not to leave a trail online.

“Over the years I got the chance to work with activists, to train journalists and I got the opportunity to see how Tor improves people’s lives and the work that brave people are doing.”

More than anything, Sandvik believes journalists need to be trained in the use of anonymous tools in order to do their jobs and ensure the trust of the people they write about and the sources they protect.

“It is true that for the most part journalists write stories that aren’t necessarily of interest to nation-state actors. But it is important to think through for each article, what are you writing about, how did you get the information and who could kill your story.

“If it is a sensitive story you are working on, you need to go through the mental process of thinking how can you keep steps ahead of people who would suppress the story. Journalists need to think how they can safely work on stories into the future.”

On the question of how fast anonymity tools are evolving, Sandvik says for Tor it is all about keeping pace with change.

A key aspect of the fight back is Tor Hidden Services, which Sandvik says is gaining popularity.

“Facebook has used Tor Hidden Services to allow people to use Tor to safely access Facebook.

“There are more people using Tor now than ever before. We need to make sure that the network will scale and can be usable to everyone.

“The censorship arms race has been a challenge, especially in countries like China and Iran that will try and block Tor.

“Getting a new version of Tor that users can connect to and that can’t be hacked or blocked by governments is a constant arms race.”

Runa Sandvik will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming Smart Business Show at the RDS on 22 and 23 April

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years