Oct 20, 2015 · 5 minutes

Last night at the Electronic Frontier Foundation headquarters in San Francisco, Roger Dingledine, founding developer and interim executive director of the Tor Project, gave a talk as part of the EFF’s ongoing TechnoActivism Third Mondays series.

Dingeldine presented a “state of the onion” address, roughly chopped into eight parts, over the better part of two hours. The atmosphere was casual and low-tech -- there were no visual aids, questions came in on a rolling basis from a couple dozen well-informed onionists, and cheesy bunny snacks were passed through the crowd.The discussion itself was fairly technical and rigorous. And couched in the language of war.

Adversaries were invoked – foreign and domestic, state-affiliated and not – most frequently by the appellation “the Feds.” The term “arms race” cropped up quite a bit. Dingledine said that Tor’s direct competitors were for-profit VPNs, and that, as for other distributed systems, if they were legitimate they would likely be assimilated into Tor.

“Everyone who does it right becomes part of the Tor community, all the competitors are doing it wrong, and that is because we have the level of community and openness that we do,” Dingledine said in response to audience questions about advice for younger, poorer projects. But how does one generate awareness for one’s project without the benefit of Tor’s travel and volunteer-coordinating budget? Dingledine continued:

“It’s a chicken and egg thing. We didn’t have the funding, we just did it. Then we went to people with money and showed them that we’d done it correctly. One of them was the EFF actually...”

As Pando has previously reported, the EFF's funding of Tor occurred in 2004, after the security tool had already been jump-started by the Security state. As at that time, this fact remained unmentioned last night.  

Most of the talk was devoted to Tor’s expanding “umbrella” of services and tools and community projects and proposals, which radiate out from “core Tor” into Firefox’s private browsing, Android anonymity, public library relays, an operating system, and tools for measurements. EFF recorded the talk, and if you’re interested in these more granular bits, the audio can presumably be had by asking them nicely.

On Facebook’s use of what were formerly called “location hidden services,” Dingledine said:

“We’ve transitioned it to 'Onion Services,'” Dingledine said, “since Facebook uses it now that word 'hidden' is kind of silly.”

There were further signs of transitions in public image. He had plans for mainstreaming Tor use to improve its safety –- “Tor Network is a commons. The more people use it, the safer it is. Well up to a point. I turns out once you have enough people, you kind of have enough” –- He also cited plans for diversifying Tor’s funding away from government, and for gaining better publicity.

Dingledine mentioned some concerns over funding-related optics.

“We do accept Bitcoin, but actually there is a theory that predicts that when you’re a non-profit and accept Bitcoin donations, you actually receive less funding. I guess because some people are turned off by it. Guilt by association.”

Back at the (metaphorical) podium, the EFF’s Danny O’Brien, gently moderating, also brought up that “harshest subject of criticism” of Tor: that it might be compromised by its predominant government funding.

Dingledine discussed the expansion of the research network.

“Everywhere I go there are one or two university professors and their graduate students working with it. I could spend my whole life going from research group to research group. More money has gone into the research side of TOR recently, mostly from the National Science Foundation.”

He also mentioned State Department and Voice of America funding.

“They think they are funding us to spread democracy. But what we do is provide Internet freedom. it’s not up to me what people do with their countries or societies, but to give them that choice. My software is, I hope, a useful tool to give people the freedom to do what they want.”

But he conceded the situation is not ideal.

“We are stuck taking money from the US Government. We need to build balance. Next month we are going to launch awareness and small donations,” Dingledine said. “We don’t take money to do things we don’t want to do. But there are a lot of things we want to do...it’s not a conspiracy but we end up not being able to spend enough of our time and attention on the security side, which is another reason to diversify funding, so that we can direct it to what we want.”

Dingledine and Tor are hoping to dilute their fairly centralized funding with a campaign to raise smaller donations from individuals, citing the EFF model as his inspiration. He’s hoping to tap Tor’s underutilized network of notable supporters, from Cory Doctorow to Edward Snowden to John Cusack.

Though once again, there’s a fragile balance to be struck there too.

“There are differing views of how Tor should position itself. Ed Snowden loves it, for example, but how loud should we say that? For some people that makes them furious.”

One source of funding that Dingledine did not mention was the Department of Defense.  As regular readers will know, Pando -- Yasha Levine in particular -- has written extensively about Tor’s ties, past and present, with the US military and defense communities. Dingledine acknowledged ... that Tor could do a better job making their case for “legitimacy” in the media.

“With research and academic legitimacy in general, we are doing well. With general media legitimacy… we haven’t put as much attention toward that,” Dingeldine said.

Later, as Dingledine and the Monday TechnoActivists left EFF HQ in pursuit of a hot meal, he shared with me a case of funding-related reverse discrimination, describing a State Department entity that funds Tor but demands anonymity because of the associative stain.

“You’ve never heard of them,” he said. “But it’s no good for us because then we have some anonymous entity in our documentation and that always makes people think the worst.”

Generally, he said, Tor has honed its skills of presenting government departments with proposals they can’t resist. In language they can appreciate, about helping dissidents under unfriendly regimes. He said Tor publishes these proposals and summarizes the resulting work and builds, though it doesn’t make the contracts themselves available.

“Mostly because there is just too much minutiae,” he said.

True to the spirit of Tor, Dingledine didn’t ask who I was, and I didn’t tell him.