Senate Funding Bill For State Dept. Asks It To Figure Out Ways To Stop Bad People From Using Tor
from the good-luck-with-that dept
It would appear that Congress is not so happy that the State Department is a major funding source for the Tor project. Tor, of course, is the internet anonymyzing system that was originally developed with support from the US government as a way to promote free and safe access to the internet for people around the globe (mostly focusing on those under threat in authoritarian countries). Of course, other parts of our government aren’t huge fans of Tor, because it doesn’t just help activists and dissidents in other countries avoid detection, but also, well, just about anyone (except on days when the FBI decides to hack their way in).
There has, of course, always been some tension there. There are always the conspiracy theorists who believe that because Tor receives US government funding it is by default compromised. Those tend to be tinfoil hat wearing types, though. The folks who work on Tor are not exactly recognized for being particularly friendly to intrusive government surveillance. They tend to be the exact opposite of that. And, of course, part of the Snowden revelations revealed that Tor was one tool that still stymied the NSA in most cases.
But it appears that Congress may be quietly trying to undermine this. On Friday, Politico had a tiny blurb in passing about how the latest State Department appropriations bill making its way through Congress includes some references to stopping “circumvention technologies” from being used by bad people. The Politico report suggests this is designed to apply more broadly to encryption, but reading the specifics it appears to be targeted straight at Tor. Here’s the Senate report on the appropriations, where it discusses funding related to “internet freedom.”
That, of course, was the reasoning behind Tor in the first place, but here Congress is now trying to put some limitations on what the State Dept. can do with its funds, including demanding that it seek out ways to stop bad guys from using technology like Tor. In the report, it’s described this way:
…the Committee requires that spend plans submitted by the Department of State and BBG pursuant to section 7078(c) of the act include a description of safeguards to ensure that circumvention technologies are not used for illicit purposes, such as coordinating terrorist activities or online sexual exploitation of children.
In the full bill, the key section notes that the funding shall only be available for internet freedom after efforts are made to stop bad people from using the tools.
… made available for the research and development of new tools or techniques authorized in paragraph (A) only after the BBG CEO, in consultation with the Secretary of State and other relevant United States Government departments and agencies, evaluates the risks and benefits of such new tools or techniques, and establishes safeguards to minimize the use of such new tools or techniques for illicit purposes.
In case you’re wondering, the “BBG CEO” is the CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the US government agency that manages media efforts around the globe, such as the Voice of America.
Make no mistake, this appears to be an attempt to sneak in an attack on Tor via Congress into the State Dept. Tor has been developed to provide the best absolute anonymity/privacy tools for people using the internet — with the acknowledgement that it can be misused, because the people developing it recognize that the best way to protect the vast majority of its users is to build a system that is truly secure — not one that artificially tries to limit its uses. Hopefully, this provision is changed, or else it may be eventually leveraged as a way to attack Tor, to attack Tor’s funding and try to get the State Department to stop supporting such useful projects.