Skip to Content

Cybersecurity & Standards, Government Surveillance

Anonymity Isn’t a Bug – It’s a Feature

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about the value of anonymity. Despite the bad rap it sometimes gets, anonymity – and anonymity technology – is used all the time by everyday people. Think about it: just walking in a park without being recorded or observed or “going off the grid” are common examples of people seeking to disconnect their identity from their activities. Victims of domestic violence and harassment often use anonymity technologies to avoid their abusers, employers use anonymity technologies to look at the resumés of potential hires, people with sensitive health conditions use anonymity technologies to research treatment options, and law enforcement agencies even use anonymity technologies to track criminals without revealing that their web browsing comes from a government computer. In fact, one of the most popular anonymity technologies, Tor, was originally developed by the U.S. Naval Research Lab, but the technology was shared widely early on (since an anonymity tool isn’t very anonymous if the only people that use it are in the Navy).

In addition to being used day-to-day by normal people like you and me, at a more abstract level, anonymity is integral to a functioning democracy. The seeds of the American Revolution were sown in part through anonymous publications such as The Federalist Papers, and the United Nations has acknowledged that internet privacy is as important as human rights. Furthermore, being able to anonymously access information is extremely important – as much, if not more important than the ability to share one’s thoughts anonymously, especially for people living in countries like China, Syria, and Iran whose governments censor the internet. Citizens in countries where mass surveillance or censorship is in place cannot form informed opinions of their leadership without privacy-enhancing technologies like Tor. Rather than shutting off access to a useful technology due to a few bad apples, service providers should embrace users who wish to connect anonymously.

One of the most popular anonymity technologies is called Tor. Tor is a piece of free, downloadable software maintained by the Tor Project, a US-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

Tor is an anonymity tool which hides who you are by routing your traffic through a series of nodes, using a technique called “onion routing”. Tor offers a self-contained “Tor Browser Bundle” to allow users to browse the internet anonymously, and recently, the Tor Project launched a beta instant messenger client called Tor Messenger.

With this launch will likely come renewed discussions on the value of anonymity technologies. Tor is relatively unique among privacy enhancing technologies in that there is a public list of Tor nodes. This list is used by Tor to route anonymous traffic, but the same list can be used by site operators to block Tor users.

The Tor Browser has been used by human rights activists journalists, diplomats, and ordinary people for a decade. While the Tor Messenger is currently in beta release (and thus should not be used in high risk scenarios), it is a great first step and simple to install and use. People do not log on to the internet to “be anonymous,” they log on to communicate with friends, shop, read news, and share their opinions. Any technology that makes it possible to perform these tasks safely and easily is a step forward.