Government-Backed Tor Project Supports the Strong Encryption DOJ Hates

NEWS ANALYSIS: The Tor network maintains location secrecy and the kind of strong encryption that the Department of Justice says should be stopped. But Tor is a creation of the U.S. Government, which still provides some of its funding.

Tor Network Encryption

The Tor Project, which maintains the open source secure browser and networking software, published a blog March 21 saying it supported Apple's resistance to demands from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice for encryption back doors to its mobile devices and data services.

Kate Kraus, director of communications and public policy for the Tor Project, told eWEEK that the Tor Project has strong incentive to support Apple's position. "Without encryption, there’s no privacy,” Krauss said, “without privacy, there’s no safety online.”

Apple's situation hits close to home for the Tor Project, which supports activities such as blogging by human rights activists in countries with oppressive governments.

The Tor Project's main responsibility is to maintain the software for the Tor anonymity network, which supports strong encryption and routes traffic in a way that hides users' locations to discourage network surveillance and message interception.

But despite its concern about message encryption and the network's anonymity, the U.S. government is actively supporting the Tor Project as a way to provide secure communications to foreign activists and others who further U.S. interests in countries that might not be particularly friendly to the U.S.

But here’s the real eye-opener—Tor started out as a government project. Specifically, Tor was first developed at the Naval Research Laboratory located in Washington D.C.'s Maryland suburbs. The Navy is still involved in supporting Tor and a significant amount of the Tor Project’s funding comes from the government.

Krauss noted that the German government also provides funding and support to Tor, as do a number of companies who allow their employees to contribute to the Tor Project. Other funding comes from websites such as Reddit.

So while the U.S. Justice Department actively fights against strong encryption the government is also support strong encryption at the Tor Project.

The fact that the U.S. government is actively opposing a program that was originally its brainchild and it still continues to support is nothing new. This is another case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

But this dichotomy is doing a lot to undermine the government’s credibility. Suppose the Justice Department succeeds in convincing Congress to outlaw strong encryption? What happens to the Tor Project? Will the Department of Justice issue a cease and desist order to the Department of Defense? Will we see teams of DoJ lawyers aimlessly wandering the Pentagon searching for someone to sue?

Perhaps, but perhaps not. One of the reasons why the Department of State uses the Tor software is because it allows their informants to pass along information securely. It’s also used by State Department personnel to securely communicate with department staff working outside of the embassy and its secure communications suite.

According to Krauss, Tor was recently used by U.S. forces in the Middle East and in Iraq for secure communications when personnel couldn’t take the chance of revealing their presence.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...