Ten years from Snowden revelations – what’s next for Tor and privacy online?

by isabela | December 19, 2023

A decade ago, in June of 2013, Edward Snowden risked his freedom to share documents with the press that exposed the extent of the U.S. government’s mass surveillance program. His process required expert operational security and strong assurances of anonymity at every step. That’s why, in part, Snowden turned to the Tor network and Tails, an operating system that routes your computer’s traffic through Tor, in order to communicate with trusted journalists.

Snowden’s leaks revealed that the NSA was engaged in widespread surveillance of the American public through the internet. This knowledge sparked many public debates about the place of surveillance in society and whether or not online privacy protections were important. Did people have a right to be private on the internet? In these debates, it was common for people to react by saying they “had nothing to hide,” when they used the internet, so why would they need privacy?

In the years since Snowden blew the whistle, we have seen many concrete examples of how government and corporate privacy violations online affect the social context of a society and the lives of everyone in it. As individuals, we’ve also gained more insight into the tech industry and its abusive business model focused on harvesting information about our online behavior as if it were the new natural resource to exploit.

We’ve seen that with massive data sets collected through online surveillance, governments and corporations can use their knowledge about us to manipulate public opinion. Highly targeted campaigns using this data, especially those using fake news or hate speech, have driven nations towards decisions that affect global society. The campaign for the Brexit referendum in the UK, Trump's election campaign in the U.S., and Bolsonaro’s election campaigns in Brazil all explicitly used these tactics.

Witnessing the real-world impact of this data manipulation has helped many of us understand that privacy has nothing to do with having something to hide. Instead, privacy means protecting the human being that you are, all the personal details that make you, you. What you care about, what you love, what you hate, what you are curious about, what makes you laugh, what you fear. And most importantly, choosing when you decide to share that information and who you share it with. The argument about privacy has shifted from having something to hide to being able to exercise our agency.

This shift in perception has generated a rise in customer demand for better privacy protection from the tech industry and the passage of legislation (like GDPR and CCPA) that tries to help consumers exercise some rights over the data we generate while using a service or app.

The tech industry has morphed itself to prioritize privacy in response, at least in their marketing campaigns, in order to avoid the rejection by their customers and the risk of millions of dollars in fines due to new legislation. I say “morph” because even the thin veil of privacy-focused messaging does nothing to change business models built on harvesting data about you or to limit the way this data is used. Tech corporations are changing just enough to meet the requirements without losing profit, like how Google is phasing out the use of third-party cookies in Google Chrome in order to replace them with their own data tracking and ad serving technology--and trying to sell it as a benefit for user privacy.

At the Tor Project, we offer an example of how technology can be made differently. That it is possible to build technology used by millions of people with privacy at the heart. We build technology to advance that right in order to help users reclaim their agency in digital spaces. We want to be a point of reference for what is possible regarding privacy-preserving technology developing in a changing world.

Change is possible. We’re seeing it take shape. We are proud to see the rest of the industry pick up the innovations we’ve developed as part of Tor Browser and the Tor network. Web browsers are now shipping protections against third party cookies or fingerprinting, features we’ve offered for over a decade, and players like Apple are piloting features like Private Relay, a beta feature that emulates the Tor network’s model.

But grasping this sea change opportunity is not only about pressuring Big Tech to change. It’s about replacing these options with tools that are built with privacy by design from the start. Tools like Mullvad Browser, OnionShare, Tails, Quiet, and Ricochet Refresh, are all part of this new kind of ecosystem.

In 2024, our important work for better privacy online will continue – and we’re facing challenges on a global scale. Next year, 41% of the world’s population will take part in a national election. Political events and elections are increasingly marred with disruptions to internet freedom, from abusive data collection and manipulative ad technology to total network shutdowns and site censorship. Simultaneously, legislation around the world threatens the legality of encryption. Governments also push to increase their surveillance both with new technology and by expanding their legal powers, like we are seeing in the U.S. with the Intelligence Committee’s proposed bill, H.R.6611, the FISA Reform and Reauthorization Act of 2023, a bill that would introduce superficial reforms and extreme expansion of surveillance power.

Tor will be here in 2024 to meet these challenges. We will be here expanding global access to Tor with live user support channels, localization, training with community partners, and tracking the development of internet freedom around the world. We will be advancing onion service adoption by continuing our development of administration tools for onion service operators and support of organizations that want to release onion sites. We will be strengthening the Tor network against attacks in our multi-year focus on reducing malicious relay activity on the network. We will be entering our third year of investment in re-writing Tor in Rust, a safer, more modern language that makes Tor easier to integrate in a variety of applications and services. We will be here in the fight for human rights online.

The demand for strong privacy online is mounting. As a small organization, every donation makes a difference. If you value the privacy that Tor provides, and you want to ensure we can face the challenges of 2024 with strength, please make a donation today.


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