Tor is perfectly entitled to ensure users remain anonymous – UK govt

10 Mar 2015

Onions image via Daniel R. Blume/Flickr

With many governments looking to limit the powers of the anonymity software Tor, the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) said there is no legal reason why the UK can shut it down.

In a four-page report entitled The darknet and online anonymity, POST outlines how the ability to maintain an anonymous presence on the internet is vital to a number of different roles and organisations, particularly for journalists and whistleblowers, but even for those in the British police who use it as part of their own online investigations.

Of particular interest to the latter of these is the inner workings of many of the online portals that also use identity-masking software, most famously the Silk Road, used as a digital marketplace for illegal activities, including selling drugs and weapons, and human trafficking.

While there have been substantial developments made in tackling those orchestrating much of the illegal operations, it is POST’s opinion that it will not only be an infringement of someone’s wishes to remain anonymous online for legal reasons, but also that it will be almost impossible to block.

“There is widespread agreement that banning online anonymity systems altogether is not seen as an acceptable policy option in the UK,” said the report.

The report then goes on to say that aside from being unacceptable, the sheer scale of the technology means blocking it is also not feasible.

Trading of the good with the bad

However, POST does advocate for the technology’s use in attempting to track the communities of child pornographers who use Tor to hide their activities, could possibly bypass the powers of Tor by exploiting minor trade-offs in its encryption software, or simply exploiting the illegal user’s mistakes, such as using the same pseudonyms online.

In its summary of the report, POST said that, referencing the sale of drugs through Tor in particular, that there are both positives and negatives in the sale of drugs through anonymous software.

While referencing the fact these illegal activities could be proliferated online, however, “on the other hand, it has been argued that online drug markets like Silk Road transfer parts of the drug dealing business from the streets to the internet and may shorten the supply chain from drug producers to consumers. Some say this can reduce the number of drug-related crimes like robbery and shoplifting, and thus lower the social and economic costs of drug misuse.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic