Bad news for David Cameron and all who sail with him on online policy but according to a Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) briefing for MPs not only can services such as Tor not be blocked they might be on the cusp of becoming mainstream systems used by tens of millions of people.
As is customary for Parliamentary advisories, the dynamite is buried in the odd sentence or aside but the direction of travel for these systems is now clear enough. Tor is already fairly easy to use for those who know about it but it will also get faster as more relays come online while popular browsers such as Firefox might soon integrate the network as part of its anonymity mode. Proof of concept made, other rival systems could spring up.
It’s not clear how the UK Government will react to this but the briefing is clear that legislative or technical attempts to block Tor will almost certainly fail – even the Chinese Government’s great firewall of China hasn’t been able to stop Tor activity, the briefing slyly notes.
The best current estimate of the volume of Tor Hidden Services (THS) or ‘darknet’ traffic running on the service is the figure of 1.5 percent offered by the Project itself.
This traffic never leaves the service, accessing websites that are not advertised on the open web. It is not even clear how many sites of this type exist.
Against this should be set the overwhelming number of legitimate users who have been drawn to Tor on the back of privacy concerns. Despite the Silk Road stories, it is still more used by whistle-blowers, persecuted political viewpoints and journalists bypassing censorship. It is even growing in popularity among criminal investigators who see it as an entry point in to the sort of THS activity they might otherwise find hard to track.
The problem for governments is that the more they pursue online criminality by carrying out low-level surveillance on Internet traffic, the more they feed the desire of other citizens to avoid that by using secure services. That in turns feeds back into elaborate attempt to underline these services and so the cycle continues.
If the advisory’s authors are right, the UK Government could be fighting the wrong battle by attempting to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Tor and its like are here to stay and so police services need to fight back by learning how to use the service not engaging in futile attempts to wipe it out.
This is already happening anyway and should prove far more effective than standing outside the system and legislating against something that happened years ago.
Image credit: Tor Project