Tor at the Heart: Online Collaborative Projects

by aforte | December 20, 2016

During the month of December, we're highlighting other organizations and projects that rely on Tor, build on Tor, or are accomplishing their missions better because Tor exists. Check out our blog each day to learn about our fellow travelers. And please support the Tor Project! We're at the heart of Internet freedom. Donate today!

Research by Andrea Forte, Nazanin Andalibi and Rachel Greenstadt

Wikipedia blocks edits from Tor — how does this affect the quality and coverage of the "encyclopedia that anyone can edit?" How do captchas and blocking of anonymity services affect the experiences of Tor users when they are trying to contribute content? What can projects do to better support contributions from people who value their privacy?

We are a group of researchers from Drexel University studying these questions. Our initial study of privacy in open collaboration projects, entitled Privacy, Anonymity, and Perceived Risk in Open Collaboration: A Study of Tor Users and Wikipedians, was recently published in advance of its presentation at the ACM conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW) in February. Our findings offer a rare look at why people turn to privacy tools like Tor and how they experience the Internet as a result. This work was inspired by a previous Tor blog post, A call to arms: Helping Internet services accept anonymous users.

We interviewed 23 people from seven countries ranging in age from 18-41; 12 Tor users who participate in online projects and 11 Wikipedia editors who use a variety of privacy tactics. The Tor Project and Wikimedia Foundation are organizations committed to similar ideals — a free global exchange of information in which everyone is able to participate. The study's central finding is that perceived threats from other individuals, groups of people and governments are substantial enough to force users below the radar and curtail their participation in order to protect their reputation, themselves, and their families.

In nearly all interviews, participants described being wary about how aspects of their participation in open collaboration projects would compromise their privacy or safety. Many participants described crisis experiences of their own or of someone they knew as antecedent to their model of threat in online projects.

Their reasons for guarding their privacy online ranged from concerns about providers obtaining and using their browsing history for targeted advertising to actual verbal abuse, harassment and threats of violence. The most common concern voiced by participants was a fear that their online communication or activities may be accessed or logged by parties without their knowledge or consent.

This threat, which became very real for many Americans after Snowden revealed the extent of the National Security Agency's surveillance and monitoring practices, has been ever-present for users in other countries for some time. According to one non-U.S. respondent "in my country there's basically unknown surveillance going on ... and I don't know what providers to use so at some point I decided to use Tor for everything."

For a political activist, dissident, or just someone who has expressed strong political opinions the threat is multiplied. One such participant who uses Tor said "they busted [my friend's] door down and they beat the ever living crap out of him...and told him, "If you and your family want to live, then you're going to stop causing trouble." This person's privacy strategies were quickly transformed after that experience.

Eleven of the study's participants were recruited from the ranks of Wikipedia editors who expressed concerns about maintaining their privacy. In comparison to political dissent, helping to add information to Wikipedia might seem innocuous, but especially editors who work on controversial topics are also being threatened and harassed. Wikipedia allows anonymous posting, but it does not permit users to mask their IP addresses and blocks Tor users — except in special cases. So wading into the controversial territory, even to present a fact-backed, neutral point of view, puts editors at risk. Some Wikipedians described threats of rape, physical assault, and death as reprisals for their contributions to the project.

Administrators of the site, who often spend their time on managerial tasks and enforcing policies, also reported being harassed or threatened with violence. "It's a lot of emotional work," said one study participant. "I remember being like 13 and getting a lot of rape threats and death threats and that was when I was doing administrative work."

Our analysis suggests that Wikipedia and other collaborative projects are losing valuable contributions to privacy concerns. If certain voices are systematically dampened by the threat of harassment, intimidation, violence, or opportunity and reputation loss, projects like Wikipedia cannot hope to attract the diversity of contributors required to produce "the sum of all human knowledge."

In response to this problem, our research agenda aims to support communities like Wikipedia in developing tools and norms that value and welcome anonymous contributions.

For more:

Andrea Forte will be speaking at the next WikiResearch showcase which will be live-streamed this Wednesday 12/21 at 11:30am PT / 7:30pm UTC.

Read the paper: "Privacy, Anonymity, and Perceived Risk in Open Collaboration: A Study of Tor Users and Wikipedians"

Watch the video from the 32c2 talk: What is the value of anonymous communication?


Please note that the comment area below has been archived.

December 20, 2016


I share the same concern, I abandoned editing on Wikipedia after all my attempts to do so while protecting my privacy were in vain.

So am i !
Anyway , saying like in the article above that they received threats is a funny joke because
wikipedia is a blog for insane mind since a long time ; it should be deleted from the web.

> This person's privacy strategies were quickly transformed after that experience.

Indeed, in the early days a huge number of high quality articles on highly technical subjects was created by a dedicated volunteer cadre of Ph.D.s, which did much to transform Wikipedia into a resource where anyone could find information easily available nowhere else, which helped make Wikipedia mainstream. (Ironically, the USIC soon created its own secret wiki, in response to demand from their own analysts who had noticed how Wikipedia had rapidly created a huge international collaboration with unbounded ambitions, starting from a tiny core of first users.)

Unfortunately, cadre members experienced intense harassment, not infrequently state-sponsored. One of the sadder lessons of Wikipedia experience is that no topic, however obscure or apparently apolitical, is universally inoffensive. In truth, it turns out that not only can any topic offend, any topic *will* offend *someone* so mightily that they are willing to virtually dedicate their lives to wikitrolling.

One interesting and important topic not yet mentioned: as "AI" technology advances, many media organizations have started to use robotic rewriters to refactor content from rival news organizations, and it is often not obvious to human readers that the byline disguises the fact that the article they are reading was not in fact written by a human. With further advances, robotic call center workers have appeared, and again human callers seeking technical or billing assistance do not always realize they are conversing with a robot rather than a human. With the latest advances, robotic authorship of blog comments on a massive scale become possible. Currently, it seems that the content produced by these robots is not quite coherent over many paragraphs, but resembles human authored content sufficiently to leave the impression that the text might have been authored by someone far from fluent in the natural language in which the text is written, or who is drunk or otherwise impaired.

These advances raise the danger of sophisticated state actors with huge resources (e.g. NSA) setting up a fairly inexpensive but hard to counter network of robotic "authors" of Wikipedia articles slanted to suit USG (or NSA) interests. This is exactly the kind of project with agencies such as DARPA love to research, and unfortunately it fits in very well with current calls from US congresspersons for USG programs which can effectively counter on-line ISIL propaganda, which they claim (with little if any evidence) is so enormously effective that (to quote from a claim originating with candidate Clinton) only a new "Manhattan Project" can counter it.

December 20, 2016


> Rachel Greenstadt

So may we expect a blog post on the potential danger to Tor-enhanced anonymity which is posed by advances in stylometric methods?

If so, please do not neglect the thorny but essential question of funding diversity, in connection with privacy-enhancing research. Because research on improving protections for would-be anons is all too easily transformed into tips for the attackers.

Every ordinary citizen is unfortunately caught up in a computer network technology driven arms race between attackers and defenders of civil liberties, so the ease with which defensive research is turned into offensive coding is perhaps unavoidable. But when a government agency which is generally hostile to civil liberties is the only game in town when it comes to funding anti-stylometry research, is is all too easy for them to "shape" the citizen experience by preventing any practical defensive utilities from appearing, not to mention keeping close tabs on the latest ideas being discussed by privacy researchers.

A similar controversy revolves around the question of whether it may sometimes be unwise, in the larger context, for defenders of privacy to openly discuss all of their best ideas, particularly in the case of an idea--- for example, an idea useful for the program of capturing, reverse engineering, and attributing state-sponsored malware, without regard to whether some government is regarded as "friendly" or "hostile"--- which can be rapidly developed into an effective real world technique.

Strangely enough, NSA researchers will probably want to anonymously air their own views on that topic, possibly without mentioning their employer's identity. I have somewhat ambiguous feelings about that prospect, but clearly we cannot and probably should not reject anyone from commenting, so long as their comments are coherent, polite, and fall outside the category of unambiguous hate speech or incitements to terroristic acts. In the optimistic hope that our enemies will not attempt to game us by adopting some unstated bizarre private definition of those terms, I will not attempt to define them unless necessary, because I tend to believe that every well-intentioned human will have little difficulty in recognizing genuine hate speech or terrorism when they see it, which I hope won't happen, at least not in this blog.

Well, I have published several papers on the topic (and there are videos at PETS and CCC). All my research on stylometry is published and available to all.

Some papers:……

This is the topic I was invited to post on. I'm not sure the Tor blog is the right place for the stylometry discussion, and I'm hesitant to wander too off-topic here because of my personal connection to arma. But perhaps I'll post about it sometime if I'm invited.

December 21, 2016

In reply to greenie


Thanks for the links; I've already read most of them and hope others here will follow suit!

> anonymouth

Some Tor users have been demanding useful tools which may offer some protection, and in particular have expressed an interest in seeing this turned into a Debian package ordinary citizens can use.

> This is the topic I was invited to post on.

Yes, I know.

> I'm not sure the Tor blog is the right place for the stylometry discussion

I feel confident that the Tor blog is one of several appropriate venues for just such a discussion, which is why I've been urging Shari to invite you to post a blog here explaining what stylometry is, your assessment of the current state-of-the-art, and--- this could get tricky--- your views on the dangers which some of us see in seeking/accepting research grants from agencies like DARPA whose mission statement might be characterized as "suppressing any and all actual or potential current or future threats to the US national interest".

The problem I see with such a mission statement is that the definition of key terms appears to be both secret and elastic. In particular, "threat" could all too easily include "dangerous ideas". IMHO, this point is of urgent current interest because it is evident, I think, that the fuss over alleged on-line ISIL recruitment and alleged "fake news" is already being abused by politicians anxious to classify legitimate political viewpoints they dislike (,, and are among the venues already being named) as "Russian disinformation" [sic] or even "dangerous to the national interest" [sic].

> here because of my personal connection to arma

I worry about appearances too, but on the whole I think rare expertise on an important and highly technical subject trumps such concerns.

To repeat: I'd like to see you start developing for TP and stop accepting grants from an agency I regard as hostile to TP. I am well aware that people who know people who work there may regard them as personal friends and as "friendly", to which I say, that's how NIST felt about some NSA people, before the Snowden leaks proved that the warnings from some of us were well justified.

I'd add that as a human rights proponent, I believe in free association, so it pains me to advise anyone to be more cautious in dealing with people whose employment is concerning.

Nonetheless, it appears to be an eternal verity of the human condition that it is impossible to fully consistent in ones personal philosophy, especially when one is confronting an inventive, amoral, and highly capable enemy. TP is neither the first nor the last institution which must grapple which such dilemmas.

A further potentially awkward point: some human rights supporters are involved in some way with an ongoing international collaboration seeking to provide so much verifiable evidence to the ICC that an international arrest warrant for certain controversial USG figures becomes inevitable. Sometimes people with ties to the USG find this offensive. To them I say: please note that we seek the put the leaders in jail, not the lower ranks who actually pushed the buttons which fired the Hellfire missiles at Afghan, Iraqi, Syrian, Somali, ... Yemeni people who in many cases turn out to have been entirely innocent of terrorism. Further, we seek to put jail of other nations (RU, SA) who have been responsible equally horrendous war crimes.

One more difficult point: for some time, I have been concerned that Roger might become slightly overprotective whenever your name comes up. Assuming my perception is not wildly inaccurate, all I can say is that least in my case I don't think he need be concerned.

Thanks for your response!

December 20, 2016


I quit WP editing when they seized my old established nym, runing it and rendering past work useless, under the pretext of reuniting diverse national versions or so they wrote. since then I don't trust "free" "collaborative" projects much any more. There are always people and not-so-benevolent dictators eager to exploit the well-meaning work of others. Let's give Tor the benefit of the doubt that it is not infected by similar deleterious spirit.

December 20, 2016


I cannot seem to access the paper via Tor... the site tells me my IP address is blacklisted. Is this just me?

as soon as you are anonymous , you are not welcome (vpn?), as soon as you disagree (edit closed? call the admin?) you are banned ... in fact, the beginning was a white board helping student at school for their creativity open itself letting a hope way against the fear of the drug cartel (italy) _ i do not understand how a stupid person transformed a reaction against the oppression in a Free wall For All like a game where everyone is coloring with black point and white comma every trace of education ... avoid ... most of articles are obsoletes , obscene by their stupidity , idiot by their discussion and so superficial & falsified : i do prefer a good propaganda better constructed than a spirit where the mediocrity reigns by the terror.
Who do receive threat ? the blacklisted or the person who reserve the white space ?

December 21, 2016


As another commentator said:


Wikipedia doesn't realize how they are shooting themselves in the foot. The Wikimedia Foundation's status as a nonprofit does not obscure that their "business model" is "user-generated content". Yet without stopping to consider how much they depend on the generosity of faceless nobodies, they exclude contributions by anonymous nobodies.

I frequently get the urge to fix or contribute something on Wikipedia. Usually it's a matter of typos or grammar, or perhaps the addition of a reference. Occasionally, I see an opportunity to add substantial text on a topic I am well-qualified to address. But Wikipedia's anti-Tor policy gently reminds me that perhaps I really shouldn't contribute unpaid time, effort, and brains to their glorious informational empire.

I am proud to use Tor; and if I want to volunteer, I prefer to do so where I am wanted. As such, I actually thank Wikipedia for signalling me that they do not value my potential contributions.

Wikipedia commands a core resource which no other encyclopedia can hope to match: its global volunteer contributor base provides a vast range of linguistic knowledge and technical expertise on the most obscure topics. Another unique strength is that Wikipedia contributors often rapidly update articles to incorporate accurate and well-sourced information about current events, sometimes within hours of their being reported.

As an encyclopedia, Wikipedia must provide articles on politically contentious topics. But this engenders a serious problem for Wikipedia's "benevolent dictator" Jimmy Wales and his advisors: wikiwars over the tiniest detail.

For example: "you say Kiev; I say Kyiv"--- the spelling can indicate pro-Eastern vs. pro-Western biases on the invasion of Ukraine. So Wikipedia's "redirect" from "Kyiv, Ukraine" to "Kiev, Ukraine" becomes contentious. Even using the verb "invasion", as I just did, will be seen as highly inflammatory. So would substituting any other verb. Even presenting a map of Ukraine becomes a contentious political statement.

Thus it becomes impossible to even attempt to discuss any controversial topic without offending someone, and the harder you try to offer an independent and unbiased account, as Wikipedia must do, the more certain you are to offend partisans on all sides of any question.

The issue of false equivalency also arises--- not all viewpoints are equally valid, when one emphasizes the supremacy of verifiable facts over passionate but ill-informed opinion, as any encyclopedia must do. But government censors try to suppress unfavorable information precisely in order to assure that the state controls the body of "available information". A unique asset of Wikipedia is that its contributors are often present at newsworthy events and can, in the public interest, tell important stories which some government would rather not see the light of day. But resisting government censorship in order to present factual accounts of controversial events is often dangerous.

And it is not only governments commonly regarded as repressive which attempt to prevent professional or amateur journalists from covering significant events. The standoff at Standing Rock provides an instructive illustration: a USG agency, FAA, has abused its authority to prevent citizen reporters from using drones to document the protests.

The problem of wikiwarring is, perhaps, inevitable in articles on subjects involving the deaths of huge numbers of innocent civilians, such as the Syrian civil war. In such cases it is easy to understand why passions tend to run near the maximum value which human beings can sustain. But such passions also often evident in highly obscure topics which most rationale people would not consider to be literally matters of life and death. Yet is seems to be part of the human condition that there is, seemingly, no topic too silly or obscure to excite extremism on the part of a few fanatics.

And when users are offered the chance to make anonymous edits, a few people always seem to feel so strongly that they eagerly take advantage of the power of anonymity to behave badly, which has led to considerable chaos at Wikipedia.

One particularly objectionable phenomenon which exemplifies this problem: elected politicians from "representative democracies", or their overzealous staffers, have too often resorted to abusing anonymous edits to try to remove truthful but unflattering information from Wikipedia articles on particular politicians, or to slant articles to favor their individual political agenda.

So anonymous edits are problematic for Wikipedia. But attempting to write non-anonymously on controversial topics is becoming personally dangerous for more and more contributors who fall victim to doxing, in some cases followed by legal harassment (e.g. threats of libel actions), death threats, or even physical violence.

Strong-arm tactics have long been common in parts of Africa, Asia, South America, and the former Soviet Union, but in recent years have reappeared in Europe and spread to North America. (It seems only a matter of time before Brownshirt style bullying spreads to Antarctica.) Over time, this is likely to erode Wikipedia's contributor base.

By tradition, Wikipedia has tried to support freedom of reading, thinking and writing over censorship (state-sponsored or not), and it is very sad to see that this institution is coming under increasing pressure from many governments and other entities seeking to suppress truthful information which these governments do not want anyone to see, even as its contributors increasingly come under personal assault from entities seeking to suppress information or ideas they regard as endangering their own political agenda.

It seems safe to predict that the 21st Century will prove one of the darkest in human history--- and quite possibly the last.

> So Wikipedia's "redirect" from "Kyiv, Ukraine" to "Kiev, Ukraine" becomes contentious.

(Not OP)

Sorry, but don't you think you might be splitting hairs here? Do you really expect contributors to write and maintain two separate articles about the same thing simply because there are two ways to spell it?

There's been a lot of commenting on this post about how Wikipedia is biased and censored and whatever, but I have yet to see this phenomenon exemplified to the extent necessary for me to consider it a serious problem. Would you like to compare Wikipedia to a similar encyclopedia that is completely unbiased an completely uncensored? I think they've done pretty well, all things considered.

> Sorry, but don't you think you might be splitting hairs here? Do you really expect contributors to write and maintain two separate articles about the same thing simply because there are two ways to spell it?

Of course not, and no-one ever suggested that! Please read the cited post again.

> There's been a lot of commenting on this post about how Wikipedia is biased and censored and whatever,

You misunderstood; please read the cited post again.

December 21, 2016


A few things everyone can do now:

Please consider running a relay to help the Tor network grow.
Tell your friends! Get them to run relays. Get them to run hidden services. Get them to tell their friends.
If you like Tor's goals, please take a moment to donate to support further Tor development. We're also looking for more sponsors — if you know any companies, NGOs, agencies, or other organizations that want anonymity / privacy / communications security, let them know about us.
We're looking for more good examples of Tor users and Tor use cases. If you use Tor for a scenario or purpose not yet described on that page, and you're comfortable sharing it with us, we'd love to hear from you.


Help translate the documentation into other languages. See the translation guidelines if you want to help out. We especially need Arabic or Farsi translations, for the many Tor users in censored areas.
Evaluate and document our list of programs that can be configured to use Tor.
We have a huge list of potentially useful programs that interface with Tor. Which ones are useful in which situations? Please help us test them out and document your results.


Monitor some of our public mailing lists, like tor-talk, tor-relays, tor-dev, or tbb-dev, and summarize noteworthy exchanges into articles for Tor Weekly News.
Create a presentation that can be used for various user group meetings around the world.
Create a video about the positive uses of Tor, what Tor is, or how to use it. Some have already started on Tor's Media server, Howcast, and YouTube.
Create a poster around a theme, such as "Tor for Freedom!"
Create a t-shirt design that incorporates "Congratulations! You are using Tor!" in any language.
Spread the word about Tor at a symposium or conference and use these Tor brochures in PDF and ODG format and translated to at least ten different languages as conversation starter.

Google Summer of Code

Tor is also taking part in this year's Google Summer of Code! To apply but you need to be either a present student or just graduated. See our page for Google Summer of Code for more information.

Below are a list of Tor related projects we're developing and/or maintaining. Most discussions happen on IRC so if you're interested in any of these (or you have a project idea of your own), then please join us in #tor-dev. Don't be shy to ask questions, and don't hesitate to ask even if the main contributors aren't active at that moment.

For a presentation summarizing many of these projects see...
Tor Ecosystem (mp4, slides)

Name Category Language Activity Contributors
Tor Core C Heavy nickm, athena

> Please consider running a relay to help the Tor network grow.

But only if you have sufficient bandwidth, yes?

Many people who lack the resources to maintain a server in a commercial server farm are reluctant to run even a Tor relay from their home, for fear of attach, possibly by sophisticated state-sponsored attackers. I understand Tail Project is working on something they call "Tails server", which could be just what we have been looking for.

December 21, 2016


Wikipedia is full of error. I know-I used to correct them. Mainly on technical subjects, sometimes errors in mathematics and such.
No longer. They gave trolls badges with some editors. I looked for similar situations and found no end of people who had very valuable research deleted as "vandalism". Everything seems to need a link to where it already exists on the Internet. So a correction is not accepted,unless it already exists in that form somewhere else. I am not talking a matter of opinion, but an actual fact.
I now see so many errors there that I no longer even try to correct and I also ban all of my students from using it, or indeed any references from it.
I will not miss it if it were to fold. I know getting volunteers is difficult, but when the bad ones already present, prevent good new ones from contributing. Well, it is not surprising it is facing such problems. You give trolls badges and many experts will walk away from donating their time any more. Just as I have done.

> Wikipedia is full of error. I know-I used to correct them. Mainly on technical subjects

I beg to demur: in my experience, WP's greatest strength are its technical articles, which offer unmatched coverage, detail, and timeliness. It's true that the quality of information varies, even within a single article, and long articles which have been edited by many people over a long period sometimes become somewhat disorganized.

All that said, in my experience, the problem of wikiwars is far worse in the case of articles on politically sensitive or controversial subjects.

> I will not miss it if it were to fold,

Pretty much the entire rest of the world would, however, so don't hold your breath.

I think "burnout" is inevitable and that Wikipedia needs to be able to continue to recruit "fresh blood" offering dispassionate technical expertise or other extensive subject area knowledge in order to survive. People whose strongest partisan attachment is to the truth.

I agree this has become increasingly difficult as more and more highly determined (and sometimes, highly sophisticated) actors use increasingly ingenious methods to attack or abuse Wikipedia. I don't think there is any easy solution to this problem, but Wikipedia has some very talented people on board who are trying to ensure that the encyclopedia remains sufficiently relevant and trustworthy that the world continues to regard it as essential infrastructure.

December 22, 2016


So, did they come up with a solution. Anonymous credentials is a concept that comes to mind, but so far I haven't seen any useful implementation of that. Is there anything Wikipedia can do to enable anonymous edition while still combating spam?

.I hope Wikipedia is considering this:

Why not start a test program in which would-be anon contributors are offered the chance to contribute using Tahoe-LAFS write-caps?

If adopted on a massive scale, this would mean a big change for Wikipedia, but it could go a long way towards

o allowing people to edit without fear of IRL retaliation,

o allowing people to adopt a consistent pseudonym, which promotes honest work since it encourages contributors to try to earn and keep a reputation for making good edits.

At first blush, it might seem that this would make worse the problem of political staffers disguising their personal interest in "making the boss look good" via pseudonymous edits. However, I believe that experience at Wikipedia has shown that in such cases, people with bad intentions make edits only in certain topics (such as the biographies of particular politicians), and over time this pattern can be suggestive that some editor's work deserves closer scrutiny.

December 22, 2016


I really like these CCC talks. Is there anywhere we can find a list of all the recent talks by Tor Project people at CCC and other events? It's kind of time consuming to track them down.

December 22, 2016


Please do a Tor at the Heart about Nymble. It was mentioned in the linked CCC talk; I'd never heard of it.