Join our Xmas challenge: give the gift of online privacy

As 2015 draws to a close, the state of the internet challenges the idea of any of us having meaningful privacy, ever again. That’s where projects like the Tor Anonymous Network come in, making it still possible to use the internet without oversight. As a Christmas gesture and a gift to other writers who live in oppressive countries around the world, we at Ink Tank Media have launched a Tor relay server. Now we challenge other companies to do the same or to make a donation to the Tor Project.

The free Tor software works by bouncing its users’ traffic around the world between relay servers like ours, wrapped with several layers of strong encryption. Tor can be used by anyone: for journalists and political activists under oppressive regimes, it’s a lifesaver. But it is, and will be, handy for every single one of us. With the current state of online privacy, it’s getting impossible to assume that a law-abiding citizen in a Western democracy will never need the privacy provided by Tor. Here’s a video on how Tor works:

 

The bright side of the dark web

Countless institutions will try to convince you that technology like Tor is evil and made for criminals, hate groups and terrorists. This is simply untrue. As with most powerful technologies, Tor is a double-edged sword and simply neutral to those who use it.

Governments, big corporations, and organized crime will always find ways to secure their communications and hide their identities. It’s up to you and us to support an open system like Tor to ensure that common people have access to secure communications and anonymity, too. In fact, you don’t even need to install a relay server to help the Tor Project. You can even give the gift of privacy to someone in need just by trying out the Tor Browser, a hardened version of Firefox, to read the morning news. If we all did that, those who rely on Tor to protect their lives become more invisible, like needles in a haystack.

When someone questions the legitimacy of Tor, remember these backers of the technology: it was invented at the US Naval Research Laboratory, to protect intelligence work. The Tor Project has received substantial funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. Even Facebook has opened a hidden site within the Tor network to remain available on censored connections.

How

 

We do this because we rely on the internet

We at Ink Tank Media consume and produce information for a living. Most of our work places us firmly in the roles of writers.

On a daily basis, we look to the internet as our main source of information and inspiration from dedicated journalists, artists and ordinary people who have something to say. One reason we’re so good at what we do is the wealth of information available to us.

In the grand scheme of history and the global reality, we are of course amazingly privileged. In fact, our entire profession wouldn’t exist without life in a democratic, civil society with free speech. And that’s exactly why we want to support Tor. It’s a precaution, an insurance policy.

The British Museum's Enlightenment Room is a display dedicated to the age of Enlightenment.

A British Museum display dedicated to the age of Enlightenment. Image: mendhak

 

Privacy is a treasure that enables democracy

Malicious or naïve politicians and pundits often claim that honest people should have nothing to hide. This clichéd argument can be debunked without even blinking: We cover ourselves with clothes, our windows with drapes and we lock the door when we go to the bathroom. We simply need privacy for society to function. As security rockstar Bruce Schneier writes:

Cardinal Richelieu understood the value of surveillance when he famously said, “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.”

Watch someone long enough, and you’ll find something to arrest — or just blackmail — with. Privacy is important because without it, surveillance information will be abused: to peep, to sell to marketers and to spy on political enemies — whoever they happen to be at the time.

In a society with rampant snooping going on behind the scenes, everyone’s vulnerable to blackmailing and threats over harmless human behavior. That’s not how you sustain liberal, Western democracy.

 

Surveillance under false pretenses

Nations all around the world are authorizing unprecedented mass surveillance systems that look at as much as possible of all traffic that floats around the internet. Western mass surveillance happens under the deceitful pretenses of solving crime or preventing terrorism. All the while, such surveillance costs more than typically underfunded, proper police work. And it’s building huge, potentially deadly caches of highly private information.

What’s more, your data being collected includes searches you make on health topics or personal finance. This data is of enormous interest to anyone from insurance companies to the tax authorities. Note that while China is working on formalizing a terrifying public-private partnership for ranking citizens based on online activity, almost everything needed to run this kind of operation exists in many Western countries today.

And for the sake of argument: let’s say that you trust the countless, unknown companies within the internet ad tracking industry not to do anything bad with your data (you shouldn’t!). If these companies get hacked, all your private information on your web habits will be out there.

Raspberry 2 in original, unopened package

 

So what do you need to do?

In short: run a Tor “middle relay” on a spare computer. It’s surprisingly easy with fair computer skills. We got started with our Tor relay in an afternoon, with a Raspberry Pi 2 computer that costs less than EUR 100 with accessories. It needn’t use more than a tiny slice of our broadband connection.

You can run what’s called a Tor “middle relay” without liability for its use, since the traffic being relayed will be of unknown origin and wrapped in several layers of encryption. Every “middle relay” makes the Tor network more anonymous, faster and more reliable.

The small Raspberry Pi 2 computer we’ve set up as a Tor relay draws less electricity than a night light, but can serve as a practical instrument of Enlightenment ideals for tens thousands of people in very dark places and dangerous situations.

We’re totally challenging you: please consider installing a Tor node. If you’re up for it, please share this article or just borrow our concept by commenting as #supportTor on Twitter. We’re off to celebrate Christmas now, but we’ll be back next week with some cool tech tips on how to get a Tor node running on a Raspberry Pi or any other computer. We don’t want this challenge to become an empty New Year’s resolution, right?

Please help spread online privacy tools, and while you’re at it, have a lovely Christmas!

Thomas NyberghThomas Nybergh is a Digital Producer and writer for Ink Tank Media. Passionate about user-centred design and culture, he’s spent a decade working at the crossroads of technology and marketing. He can be found sharing his thoughts on both on Twitter 

Title image credit: chris

7 replies
  1. Genma
    Genma says:

    I really enjoy your initiative for promoting Tor. Thank you for that. Really.
    But your talking about privacy & your website is behind cloudflare (seen using Tor) and contains GoogleAnalytics script 🙁 Cool be better next time 🙂

  2. Thomas Nybergh
    Thomas Nybergh says:

    Hi there Genma

    As we discussed earlier on Twitter, we’re a business like many others, and we have bills to pay.

    But there’s some subtext to why we chose to publish this article right now. It’s very much related to the clear contradictions you bring up. Because these are very real issues, I’m posting this as an attempt at a thoughtful reply to your concerns. I know, my writing does get a bit fluffy, but these really are my concerns too, so bear with me. And I’m writing this in my off hours after all 😉

    We, and many others (I hope), are indeed trying to come to terms with how some of the tools and business models that typically surround our field (marketing and publishing), are greatly at odds with the sort of privacy we need in the world going forward. This whole mess is discussed very thoughtfully in the Techcrunch article we linked to in the post above.

    I think it’s important to try and watch the similarities between tools of oppression and the tracking based industries we’re building in Western democracies. This gesture of ours of running a relay to keep the Tor Network as fast and reliable as possible is part of a larger movement that literally saves lives. But as a bonus, we used this post to challenge companies like ourselves to not only volunteer for the Tor Project, but to really think about how we’re doing.

    The China example shows us how close we may be to having enormous amounts of commercially tracked data end up somewhere radically different from where it was intended. We hope that change in industries that rely on commercial tracking can happen gradually through market pressure (more consumers using ad, tracking blocking, Tor etc) and through regulation.

    Luckily, Ink Tank, as a specific company, isn’t super deep in the tracking and stalking racket of trying to squeeze every bit of personal information for pennies. A major part of our work can best be described as Content Marketing. It’s a fancy way of saying that we write thought provoking stories for clients, in ways that attract readers, generate knowledge about the products and services being offered, which leads to more paying customers.

    I suspect that we may be able to live with a lot less intrusive behavior than many others who provide free content, apps or services. But part of our thing is to sit down and write about stuff we think is cool and important, in ways people respond well to on the web. And then we hope we get some money for it. Luckily, this isn’t our main business, but having it as a project leaves us open to the realities of publishing. As most old timey newspapers could tell you, regularly publishing thoughts on paper or elsewhere has been largely ad funded, for a very long time. The problem is of course that ads now stalk you.

    Not only do we at Ink Tank use Google Analytics and some similar products to understand how people like what we publish, and to showcase our traffic. The thing is that we have a few blogs with viral content to keep our writing skills sharpened for client work, and we subsidize the cost and time of running them with ads from various networks.

    We do look at alternatives to Google Analytics. Partially it’s about the privacy issues discussed here, but then there’s the elephant in the room: Google Analytics does a lot of things, but it’s kind of a mess, UX wise. For certain things at least. But it’s also free, which is why everyone uses it. In fact, other commercial analytics tools can get pretty pricey at the scale we need (not infrequently 1M+ page loads a month). And these other services are of course just as questionable for privacy.

    Then there are self hosted analytics options like Piwik, all of which are kinda non-trivial to maintain at scale for our viral sites. Assuming of course that our goal is to be both cost efficient and have time to do actual creative writing. I do have the skills to do a lot more in-house tech stuff, and I’d become better at it over time. But frankly, as a recovering IT person, I like writing a lot more.

    And with all that said, many of our clients and partners who care a lot about numbers are most familiar with Google Analytics, despite its flaws. Because as we know, it’s everywhere. Like Microsoft Office, only creepier.

    And then we have Cloudflare. They’re also everywhere, of course, because they’re a CDN with caching servers all over the world. A pretty good CDN at that, when you take into account that they’re almost free (we use a paid plan, though). We have pulled off viral stunts in the past, with terabytes of animated gifs being served, which would be trickier to self-host without Cloudflare or another CDN.

    But it’s not only the free bandwidth and anti-DDoS smarts: I wouldn’t want to have any responsibility over high profile WordPress sites without Cloudflare: Their service is a small business SecOps dream machine. As a lone IT person at a company, I can’t praise them enough!

    #####

    But there you have it: This is just how deep the rabbit hole goes when you’re in the marketing/publishing biz but still care about the dangerous path of mass surveillance. So what can I say: I use some privacy tools, including an ad blocker with pretty strict filtering of trackers. So does my family.

    My dream, or hope is really that a lot of other people will make similar subversive choices. To the point where the volume of aggressive tracking we’re subjected to now becomes commercially irrelevant. Or outlawed. Or both. Until then, we have to try to use our business to spread the word as best we can, conflicted or not.

  3. Kate Krauss
    Kate Krauss says:

    Hi! It’s great that you are running a Tor relay challenge and thinking deeply about the ways that companies are using tech to help and hurt users.
    Tor is holding our first-ever crowdfunding campaign, which is supported by writers like Cory Doctorow and Molly Crabapple, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and the whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Please join us to make Tor stronger in this way as well: Donate (PayPal, cash, bitcoin–we accept it all) at http://www.TorProject.org/donate/donate-twitter. Thanks!
    And then tweet about us using the hashtag #SupportTor

    Your unrestricted contributions will give Tor the flexibility to spend money nimbly, where it is needed most to protect and serve our users, who include human rights activists in countries like Iran and China, diplomats, domestic violence survivors, and ordinary people who don’t want to be tracked online.

    Cheers,

    Kate Krauss, for the Tor Project

  4. Thomas Nybergh
    Thomas Nybergh says:

    Hello Kate

    Thanks for dropping by and reminding us about the crowdfunding campaign!

    For the life of me I can’t figure out how I didn’t think of mentioning it in our post. The banners have been everywhere for the past few days when I’ve been looking through documentation. Duh!

    I made a small donation to set an example, and I’ll add a mention about the fundraiser to the post. Keep up the great work!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] went from skeptic to believer regarding the inherent value of anonymization and Tor. Ink Tank Media supports the Tor Project by running one of the thousands of Relay servers that anonymize traffic on the […]

  2. […] Ink Tank Media, we have chosen to help by hosting a Tor Relay server that participates in obfuscating the origin of traffic from users of free privacy tools like the […]

  3. […] not unheard-of for individuals and companies, like Ink Tank Media, to contribute to the Tor network by hosting relay servers, which route anonymized traffic around the world in layers of […]

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