German magazine "konkret" interviews me about about Tor, spies and the cult of crypto

German leftwing magazine konkret published an interview with me on the the dark origins of the Tor Project, Jacob Applebaum and the normalization of sexual abuse inside the privacy community, the rightwing origins of the cult of crypto, the corruption of Internet activism, and lots of other topics.

I have to give it to Johannes Simon, the journalist who conducted the interview, for having the guts to look honestly and openly into the spooky heart of the privacy world. People have been smeared and received death threats for less. But Johannes gets it and understands why its so important to get to the bottom of today's misplaced obsession with Tor and crypto as the fix all solution to privacy, surveillance and the massive power of Silicon Valley corporations. As he wrote me, "There is deep ambiguity at the heart of Tor that's not easy to grasp: the mix of the rhetoric of freedom and civil liberties on the one hand and reactionary libertarian politics on the other; the contradictions of US-foreign policy that clothes itself in rhetoric of an open, liberal globalization — it's complicated, and I think it speaks to the greater political confusion of our times, not just of Tor." I couldn't agree more.

Here's a link to the PDF version for all you German types. I'm pasting the transcript of the original English version below. Thanks, Johannes.


Johannes Simon, konkret: How did you first become interested in Tor?

Yasha Levine: Tor became a prominent feature of political discourse around the world in 2013 when Edward Snowden popped up on the scene. He was a huge fan of the Tor project, he had a sticker of it on his laptop when he first emerged, and over the coming months he explained how Tor was central to what he did. He said Tor is not only about protecting leakers and whistleblowers, it is the best weapon that we have as people to protect ourselves against online surveillance.

There was something weird about this to me. I knew about some of the pit-falls and problems of Tor: I knew that if you signed into Google using Tor, it didn't really matter because Google still had all the information about your personal account. The same with Facebook.

So Tor didn’t really solve the corporate side of surveillance. But how about the government side of surveillance: does it work there? I looked at the financial documents that they disclosed, which I think only offer a big part of where they get their money, but not all of it - and what I discovered is that 90-100% of the funds that they received came from three different wings of the US national security state: the Pentagon, the State Department, and an organization called the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is an old CIA-created organization that goes back to the cold war.

So I asked myself: why is the government funding this stuff? How come the people who work for the Tor Project, and draw six-figure salaries from it, run around claiming that they are these radicals against government when they actually draw their salaries from the government and - essentially - the CIA? Their employer, Tor, actually has a federal defense contractor number, it's a military contractor.

Why did US national security agencies develop this tool and give it to the public?

Tor was developed by the US Navy as a way of getting around the problem of internet communication, which can be intercepted very easily. That posed a problem for spies and Tor was the solution. It could hide where you're coming from and where you are going by bouncing it around several nodes. But if only US agents are using this system, then it’s quite obvious that everyone that is using the system is an agent. So in order to truly anonymize your traffic you have to open up the system and get as many people as possible to use it: not just spies but soccer moms, drug dealers, terrorists, paranoid kids, anybody. The bigger the crowd you have, the better you can hide the spies that are using it.

So that’s why Tor was spun off from the Navy and became an actual non-profit organization. That was the original purpose. But a few years down the road another use for it emerged that was interesting for the federal government, and that was its anti-censorship function. That’s when Tor started getting funding from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is an umbrella federal agency that oversees all of America’s foreign propaganda operations. Tor became a foreign policy weapon, a soft power weapon.

How does that work?

The US government runs these kind of propaganda properties, has run them ever since the Cold War, like Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia. In the 2000s the US government began to use the internet for these efforts. After the collapse of the Soviet Union a big focus was on China, so Radio Free Asia was brought back from the dead and began to use the internet. But China simply blocked the IP addresses of their websites. It was a pretty simple fix.
So the US government decided they needed to come up with technologies that would help the Chinese people to get around this censorship. And the Tor Project offered the best solution. For the US-government it was like a crow-bar that helped pry open the national firewall that prevented American propaganda from coming into China.

I guess there is a positive side effect to this, if Chinese dissidents are able to communicate freely and have access to information?

Yes, except that I don't think Tor works in China. By using Tor, you are self-selecting yourself for further scrutiny. And if you are in a truly oppressive regime like China, where anything could happen to you if there was just a slight suspicion that you were a dissident or might be in contact with someone from America, then Tor is the last thing you want to use. And if you read the internal justifications from the State Department for funding Tor, the anti-censorship function is just a minor point; it’s just the publicly stated purpose. The real purpose of it is what they call a "cost imposing strategy": essentially a kind of digital arms race.

But aren't Tor and Encryption at least one possibility of protecting yourself against surveillance? That wish is quite understandable, don't you think? And if Tor doesn't really provide that protection, what would you propose people do instead?

It all depends on who you are trying to protect yourself from. The biggest forces of surveillance in the world are not governments, but private corporations: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Amazon, eBay, Apple — companies whose core business runs on the surveillance and profiling of every person that comes into contact with their platforms. Everything that you communicate on the Internet gets sucked up and filed away — not by the NSA, but by Google and Facebook. Tor does nothing to protect people from that. Tor does not prevent Google from scanning your emails or recording your search history. Tor does not prevent Google from tracking your location via your Android phone, creating and saving a detailed day by day map of where you go and what you do. Tor works to an extent. If you an individual trying to hide from the NSA or the FBI or the FSB, Tor might give you some measure of protection — if you are very technically savvy — but it is a limited sort of protection. It does not protect users against corporate surveillance. But it does provide a false sense of privacy. That is why Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook support Tor: it sells a version of privacy — privacy from the government — that does not threaten their own surveillance business models.

Tor supporters would answer to that criticism that it doesn’t really matter what the intentions of the US-government were, or where the money comes from, because Tor is a neutral technology, and it doesn’t matter by whom its used or who developed it. What would you say to that? Does it even work against state surveillance?

I think it can work if it’s used in a certain way. But when Tor people say this, they try to obfuscate Tor’s real purpose for which it was created. The government isn’t just giving money like a charity to let them do anything they want. You have to look at what they want from Tor.

One theory is that it’s what you would call a honeypot, do you think this explains the funding?

I’m not sure if that explains the funding, but it probably explains why it hasn’t been shut down, despite all the crime that goes on there. Some of the NSA documents released by Glenn Greenwald and Snowden show very clearly that there is a discussion among NSA analysts, who say: Tor is a problem on some level because we can’t de-anonymize every single person that connects to Tor right away – but we can eventually unmask the user and get to their identity through these different programs that we have. It’s a convenient honeypot as you said, which brings everyone that you might want to surveille to one location, and all you have to do is crack one sub-piece of software, not a hundred. That’s a big part of why the NSA kind of likes Tor. We don’t know what the FBI, or the NSA knows. But we do know: the child pornography, the drug markets, that use Tor: sooner or later, they get caught.

There is a study from the Naval Research Laboratory that says 80% of Tor users can be de-anonymized within 6 months.

Yes. One of the authors is Paul Syverson, right?


That’s the original creator of the onion router, the technology on which Tor is based. He is still at the Naval laboratory, where Tor was born. He was the guy who hired Roger Dingledine, one of the founders of Tor, as a contractor to help him develop the last generation of Tor that was then released to the public.

He is an interesting guy with an honest perspective on this, because he is no crypto-anarchist, but just a mathematician who works for the military. So he doesn’t have this weird schizophrenic identity, like the Tor people, who can’t admit what they are, which is exactly what he is – but even worse, because they are also paid to sell it as a radical thing that is in opposition to the military.

Like Jacob Applebaum. He worked for Wikileaks but he’s also been working for Tor for a very long time. So while he’s been working publicly for Wikileaks he has been drawing a salary indirectly from the US government.

Well, directly. Jacob Applebaum is a federal contractor. Like Edward Snowden, who wasn’t employed by the NSA directly, but by the contractor Booze Allen Hamilton. It makes no difference in the end.

But at the same time the Tor people seem to be so sincere in how they see themselves, as rebels against the evil empire, and they were able to convince a lot of people. Why do you think this makes so much sense to people, that they believe that encryption is always progressive and subversive?

To really answer that question, you have to go back a while. This is not a new idea, the utopian thinking around technology, linking technology to progressive politics, or rather: replacing progressive politics with technology. The modern variant of this thinking in the 50s and 60s came out of the Cold War computer science apparatus that was born during WWII but really exploded in America after the war. A very utopian communal libertarian view of the world, where everyone was equally empowered to do things, there would be no discrepancies in power, no one could suppress us or exploit us or dominate us. And I think Tor appeals to people because it seems to be one of those things: a powerful tool, a people's tool, that could equalize power on the internet, give us the same power that the NSA has, meet their power and neutralize it.

I read a little about the origins of Cypherpunk ideology in the 80s and 90s, and what struck me was how they talked about encryption technology the same way that right-wing libertarians talk about guns: as an instrument that could defend them against government tyranny, and everyone could have it, and once everyone had it, they would all be safe from tyranny.

Absolutely. The ideas that surround Tor are the same ideas that float around NRA speeches: guns are liberty. If everyone has a gun, there will be no bad guys, there will be no crime, no government tyranny, because everyone will be equally powerful. It’s a libertarian utopia, it’s about equalizing power, but it ignores the deeper social, and economic, and political issues of power in society.

What really appeals to the cyber libertarians and the cypherpunks is that by using Tor you can create a government-free zone, a zone of pure liberty. Silk Road was kind of a utopia for these people.

It’s almost like an online version of these sea-steading islands, the libertarian dream of creating artificial islands without government or laws, that’s proposed by some people in Silicon Valley.

Totally. And the ultimate goal of these sea-steading islands is to escape labor laws, so you can pay people whatever you want. You could have slave ships of programmers right off the coast of San Francisco. You could ship people in really cheap from India or China and have them just sit there in a ship and code all day. And they have no rights. It’s totally insane.

But not everyone, who is into encryption, shares these political views, right? Most Tor supporters would describe themselves as progressive, with strong interests in civil liberties?

You're right. Many Tor supporters consider themselves progressive or even leftwing. Anarchists use it, activists use it. I had one Marxist Tor supporter claim that Tor is a perfect’s people’s weapon. But just because some Tor supporters are progressive, does not make Tor the tool progressive. Just because some people believed that Camel cigarettes were healthier than other brands — a belief backed up by the testimony of real doctors — did not make actually Camels any less deadly in reality. It was a big cynical marketing ploy. And that’s a big part of the problem with Tor: the bait and switch. In many circles, Tor has a progressive imagine and is associated with progressive causes — civil liberties, free speech, political activism, human rights. But as my reporting showed, U.S. government agencies that created Tor and continue to fund it and other “grassroots” encryption tools do so for very unprogressive causes: surveillance, intelligence gathering, regime change — the soft side of "humanitarian interventions" and American imperialism. The progressive image that Tor has among a lot of well-meaning people makes it that much more useful as a covert intelligence tool for the U.S. National Security State. It gives it cover. On a bigger level, the rightwing origins of encryption as a political ideology are well documented by academics. It’s a fascinating topic. If your readers are interested in learning about it more, I'd recommend a great new book by Virginia Commonwealth University professor David Golumbia that deals with this very issue. It’s called “The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism.”

Would you say encryption is a substitute for political struggle against surveillance and state power?

Yes, I think this is why Tor has so much support from Silicon Valley and companies like Facebook, Google, even eBay. It’s a really useful PR tool that helps deflect peoples’ worries about privacy on the internet from the true problem, which is Silicon Valley, and redirects the conversation from corporate surveillance to government surveillance. Government surveillance is a problem, and it’s important that people talk about it, but it needs to be a broader conversation. You have to start at the corporate level and work up I think.

The assumption seems to be that corporations are more benevolent than governments, that they are more trustworthy, it’s not as dangerous when they have the same kind of power.

Yes, but the government and the tech companies are two sides of the same machine. Google is the apparatus through which the NSA collects their data. If there was no Google, if there was no Facebook, the job of the NSA would be much harder. The internet and all the private companies that we connect with are the tentacles of the NSA and other intel agencies. They are the collection points — the “mics.”

And there is another hypocrisy, too, because on the one hand companies like Google will slam the NSA as the enemy, but as soon as Google became a company, it started selling its search technology to the NSA and CIA. Almost every branch of the US military works with Google in some capacity. Facebook is working with DARPA. This duality between the government and Silicon Valley is a false duality.

Silicon Valley has been very successful at projecting this image. But I don't think it’s going to last very long. It’s beginning to crumble. One of the most interesting stories that Snowden released was the PRISM story. PRISM is the NSA program that essentially taps the data centers of major Silicon Valley companies. There is an actual box sitting in the data centers of these companies that is controlled by the FBI, which gives access to the NSA and the CIA. This hasn’t been refuted. Google of course denied it, as well as Facebook and everyone else. But the fact that something like this exists is not surprising. For instance: This is not exactly related, but there is a federal law that requires telecommunication companies to provide a tap for the FBI. 1993 or 1994, it was passed with support of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The EFF? The new head of Tor Sheri Steele used to be head of the EFF for a while. They advocate for civil liberties online and help whistle blowers, right?

Yeah, but they supported that law. They later said it was a mistake, but back then they supported it. The EFF started out as a telecommunications lobby essentially, for small internet providers back in the 90s. It moved from that to a Silicon Valley lobbyist, that has a kind of grassroots feel to it, but it’s in effect a corporate lobbyist. They are funded by Google, by Facebook. The EFF is one of the biggest promoters of Tor. It gave Tor a home when Tor was spun off from the navy in 2004. EFF also provided a little bit of money to keep it going, while Roger Dingledine, the co-founder of Tor, was trying to hustle and draw up some cash for this new organization. So the EFF plays a central role in legitimizing Tor as it was rebranding from a Navy project to a kind of anti-government non-profit.

I thought when Sheri Steele took over it was a kind of PR-move to deflect criticism like yours, because she seemed to be more legitimate about civil liberties and all that. She also promised that they would try to move away from government funding. Do you think there is anything to that?

Well, that’s what they say. I think, and sources tell me, that she was brought in essentially to deal with Jacob Applebaum. Because they needed someone from the outside who had people's respect, who had experience in managing an organization. She is more professional than the people who used to run Tor, who are kind of a joke and have tolerated Applebaum’s behavior.

You think they knowingly tolerated it?

Look, there is no one in the world who the people from Tor hate more than me. I am like the devil to them. Nobody from that world talks to me, and anyone who does talk to me is a pariah immediately if anyone finds out. And still, I knew about these problems with Applebaum, that there were issues with sexual abuse and harassment and worse. I am the last guy to find out about anything that happens inside Tor. And I knew — maybe a year before it came out publicly. I was asked not to say anything because the victims were scared for their safety. I was told on the condition that I could not go public with this. Of course I respected their wishes.

So what was going on? Why didn’t anyone do anything until this year?

I don’t know. I think it got to the point that it was tearing Tor apart from the inside. But Applebaum was protected, because he was so important to Tor’s image. No one else was as good as projecting Tor’s radical qualities, and its anti-government credibility as Applebaum. He is the face of Tor, and he was a very effective sales-man. So he was useful to the organization. And if you let him go, especially in such a scandalous way as this, it would be a problem for Tor’s reputation.

It’s amazing how successful he was in selling this image of Tor. Not only doesn’t it really do what it promises to do, but it does a lot of other things that they won't even admit to.

What is Tor really useful for? For media piracy, for child pornography, for drugs, intelligence, and deflecting from corporate surveillance.

And for hackers to feel like they are really sticking it to the government.

Yeah, and it's weird, Germany is an interesting place in that regard. Germany is really to blame for some of this in some way. It’s really susceptible to this culture. I don’t know why.

I don’t know why either. When I found out that the Chaos Computer Club in Hamburg is kind of the center of this global hacker-encryption culture, I was surprised.

There is a strong undercurrent of right-wing movements in Germany, right? I’m not an expert on this, but there are some people I have talked to from Germany that have pointed in that direction. At its core, the crypto culture is very right-wing. In America at least its tied to nationalism, to white power movements, to libertarianism: it is born out of a very conservative, right-wing view of the world, that sees the government and any of its attempts to meddle in the lives of the people as an evil force. And Silicon Valley is a pretty right-wing place. They have more liberal values towards gay marriage and things like that, but actually it is a very male-oriented, very white place; and very opposed to any kind of social programs that are run by the state, or any state attempts to regulate private property or enterprise. And these things overlap. The culture is very regressive, and maybe some of that exists in Germany, I don't know.

The fact that Applebaum’s behavior was tolerated for so long seems to point in that direction.

I am very critical of the way that — not just Tor project — but the rest of the privacy community has dealt with what’s happened. The people who were responsible for promoting him and building him up as a celebrity... we are talking about the EFF, Wired-magazine, the Intercept [where Glenn Greenwald publishes the Snowden documents], Laura Poitras, who featured him in her films: all these people in that world, they played a big part in building up his mystique and celebrity status. Nothing but fawning portraits. And meanwhile the allegations were building up and were somewhat known, somewhat public, because it’s a very small world. And even if they didn’t know about his history of abusing women, they haven’t expressed any kind of contrition for their role in building up this guy to a position where he could abuse women with impunity. Instead they swept the whole thing under the rug, because it makes everyone look so bad. They haven’t taken any responsibility. There is no accountability in that world. It’s pretty damning how this community deals with problems and scandals. They hush everything up to keep everything going, to keep their world pure and noble. They’ve thrown the victims under the bus, and really empowered him as an abuser.

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