Monday, 8 June 2015

Progressive political movements and Tor - Uses, traps and necessity.

I have recently seen the BBC's Dark Web a documentary that details the development and use of the Tor encrypted virtual private network. Where privacy is needed, especially in communication with vulnerable people who are subject to persecution by government's this system represents a valuable tool and a life line to external support. Vulnerable people can refer to persecuted ethnic, and political groups, but also to whistle-blowers. The Tor network has been invaluable in exposing the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs(including “collateral murder”), as well as chapters of the Transpacific Partnership Agreement under negotiation.

What use is Tor to a progressive political movement outside of the above uses, and what if any are the risks?

Certainly, participating individuals could speak freely, openly, even crassly or with dark sarcastic humour, without fear of their words being taken out of context as was done in the “fit up” better known as Operation 8.
A risk is that such measures to preserve privacy rival the extent to which establishment reactionary institutions, fascists, and corporations protect their secrets from the public. With the example of the TPPA, being one where if the public knew what was in it, few of the participating governments would find supporting it politically tenable. A legitimate question would be, in the case of a progressive political movement in regard to the use of a tool like Tor, what is being hidden – from the public, or from the prying eyes of the political establishment or law enforcement? While it is unlikely and unforeseeable that anything of legitimate concern to the establishment or law agencies would be transmitted, the question could be pushed by external interests to harm public perception
That use of this technology for a movement's general, policy, strategic and tactical communications would look peculiar to the public, and segments of the media could and likely would play up the paranoia concerning the purpose for which this technology is being employed. In regard to these communications, it seems to me the risks offer greater political costs than the privacy gains.
Typically, the executive membership often lack the technical skill to deal with the management of encryption keys. Just as losing your car keys can ruin your day, failure to correctly deal with encryption keys can leave people completely locked out. However, this problem can be reduced through training, but it can not be eliminated from a large organisation.
The difficulties of managing encryption keys, will lead to frustration among users, and there will be a natural inclination to use other communication channels which may or may not be protected.
The public to which progressive movement are trying to attract are often wary of secrecy, it bothers them, because they have seen a history of secrecy used against the interests of ordinary people like themselves.


While a communication technology may be for all intents and purposes, completely secure, people are not, Security experts and hackers, have been known to successfully break into systems by communication with authorised users, and administrators in order to gain credentials and access to secure systems.

In conclusion

This technology should be used sparingly, for what is known as back channel communication with vulnerable individuals and groups. To reduce political backlash, it may be wise to state up front that this is the purpose of this technology, to get ahead of fear-mongering that may have more media leverage if use of the technology was revealed accidentally or by hostile-investigation.
Public support for a progressive political movement, I believe, would be very likely harmed by loss of trust, if secure technology is used for work traditionally done in the open as the public that support progressive ideas, largely see openness as an important, even a core, value.
In short, use sparingly, and be clear about it.
This poorly form and inadequately expressed opinion is based on by experience as a software developer and information technology professional which does not include an in-depth understand of the Tor platform software. I welcome the advice an opinions of those who are more familiar with the technology.

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