Last updated: December 20, 2019
Who Pays For Tor? (Hint: You Do)
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Thanks to the Silk Road’s notoriety, Tor has quite the sinister reputation. The online black market is famous for facilitating the sale of anything from illegal drugs to murderers for hire.
But there’s much more to Tor than just a black market: The real purpose of the Tor network is to keep your browsing habits anonymous and protect your privacy. By passing web traffic through a series volunteer relays, and encrypting the information at each stop, Tor keeps the origin of internet traffic much more difficult to trace (though not impossible, as the Silk Road’s founders have discovered).
The Tor network is used by all kinds of people around the world; anyone with a need or desire to protect their online privacy. Regular Internet users who want to keep their emails private or protect their children from online predators use Tor to retain their anonymity.
Citizens of countries who censor the Internet use Tor to access blocked news or social media sites, or research sensitive information on topics like AIDs or birth control that may not be available elsewhere. Journalists, bloggers, and human rights activists use Tor to protect themselves from retaliation from governments or employers. And whistleblowers use Tor to keep safe when reporting corruption.
But not everyone using Tor has innocent motives. Some of Tor’s dark reputation is true, since the anonymity it grants can provide a haven for criminals. The Silk Road keeps getting shut down, but the demand for it never disappears. While it was live, it processed an estimated $15 million in transactions each year.
Which is why it’s hard to believe the story of who created Tor, and why they’re still funding it today.
Why did the US government develop Tor, and why do they continue to fund a network so famous for illegal online activity? Just follow the money, and it all becomes clear.
Follow the Money: How the US Government Funds Tor
Tor – the largest global online anonymity network – is under siege. Users try to protect themselves from surveillance while US and UK intelligence agencies work to peel away the layers of anonymity.
But a closer look at Tor’s history reveals it was developed by the US military – and now that it’s out, government agencies are spending a fortune trying to crack their own creation.
Follow the Money: A History of Tor Funding
- Significant Event
- Donor History
- US Office of Naval Research (ONR) funds the onion routing.
- US Naval Research Lab (NRL) starts research on ‘onion routing’. Tor’s parent technology.
- First proof-of-concept prototype deployed on Solaris.
- Defence Advaced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) joins funding.
- Researchers are invited to test onion routing on the NRL’s website.
- Onion routing is patented by the US Patent and Trademark Office.
- First Tor code is released under an open-source license.
- The ONR cut funding of Tor but internal NRL support continues.
- The Electronic Frontier Foundation donates: $180,000
- Tor becomes a non-profit organization and is obliged to disclose its finances.
- The NSA begings research into mapping and analyzing the Tor network for the possibility of passively identifying users. The NSA publishes its first internal study of Tor.
- Tor receives continued funding from:
- The Omidyar Network
- The US International Broadcasting Bureau
- Other groups against internet censorship
- A Swedish programmer uncovers illegal snooping of government and corporate data via Tor. Tor’s first major criminal activity alarms authorities.
- International Broadcasting Bureau*: $250,000
- US Dept. of State* (through Internews): $92,760
- Human Rights Watch: $50,103
- Electronic Frontier Foundation: $46,699
- Total revenue: $452,725*
- % from US government: 75%
- International Broadcasting Buraeu*: $260,000
- US Dept. of State* (through Internews): $183,180
- Stichting NLnet: $42,931
- Google: $28,500
- Total revenue: $531,105
- % from US government: 83%
- US Dept. of State* (through Internews): $632,189
- International Broadcasting Bureau*: $270,000
- Stichting NLnet: $38,279
- Google: $29,083
- ITT Corporation: $27,000
- Other: $9,997
- Total revenue: $1,041,633
- % from US government: 92%
- The New Yorker and Wired report that WikiLeaks originally began by intercepting communications on Tor. WikiLeaks denies the allegations.
- US Dept. of State* (through Internews): $913,153
- International Broadcasting Bureau*: $180,000
- National Science Foundation*: $148,168
- ITT Corporation: $66,000
- Google: $5,000
- Other: $1,980
- Total revenue: $1,336,308
- % from US government: 92%
- Federal crime agencies take down ‘The Farmer’s Market’, a vasg online drug sales hub hidden within the Tor network.
- US Dept. of Defense*(through SRI International): $503,706
- US Dept. of State* (through Internews): $227,118
- International Broadcasting Bureau*: $150,000
- National Science Foundation*: $143,062
- Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA): $279,149
- Other: $3,687
- Total revenue: $1,387,054
- % from US government: 73%
- US Dept. of Defense* (through SRI International): $876,099
- US Dept. of State* (through Internews): $328,566
- US Dept. of State* (through New America Foundation): $25,000
- National Science Foundation*: $7,547
- International Broadcasting Bureau*: $387,800
- Radio Free Asia*: $150,000
- SIDA: $318,691
- Knight Foundation: $252,161
- Foundation for Christian Stewardship: $10,000
- Accessnow: $20,000
- Other: $91,805
- Total revenue: $2,608,833
- % from US government: 68%
- US Dept. of State*: $256,900
- US Dept. of State* (through Internews): $555,413
- US Dept. of State* (through New America Foundation): $70,000
- US Dept. of Defense* (through SRI International): $830,269
- US Agency for International Development*: $10,000
- National Science Foundation*: $100,325
- International Broadcasting Bureau: $853,600
- Other: $143,859
- Total revenue: $2,872,929
- % from US government: 93%
- In July, Tor warns users that Software Engineering Institute (a government-funded lab) has been monitoring its hidden services and collecting user data for 5 months.
*Institution/department funded by the US taxpayer
Funding the Fortress It’s Trying to Crack
Tor has developed into a fast-evolving anonymity tool for the world – and a pricey hackathon for the NSA.
- NSA Research Report on the Tor Encrypted Network – apps.washingtonpost.com
- Feds Shutter Online Narcotics Store That Used TOR to Hide its Tracks – arstechnica.com
- Radio Free Asia – bbg.gov
- Tor Security Advisory: “Relay Early” Traffic Confirmation Attack – blog.torproject.org
- The Inside Story of Tor, the Best Internet Anonymity Tool the Government Ever Built – businessweek.com
- EFF Joins Forces with Tor Software Project – eff.org
- Tor Protects Anonymous Sources; Development Continues on Second-generation Privacy Technology, But Legal and Financial Obstacles May Slow Progress – evernote.com
- 2010 Free Software Awards Announced – fsf.org
- ‘Tor Stinks’ Presentation: Read the Full Document – theguardian.com
- Relays and Bridges in the Network – metrics.torproject.org
- Anonymous Connections and Onion Routing – onion-router.net
- Deploying Low-Latency Anonymity: Design Challenges and Social Factors – onion-router.net
- Onion Routing – Brief Selected History – onion-routing.net
- Almost Everyone Involved in Developing Tor Was (or is) Funded by the US Government – pando.com
- WikiLeaks Denies Tor Hacker Eavesdropping Gave Site its Start – theregister.co.uk
- The Tor Project Financial Statements 2008 – thetorproject.org
- The Tor Project Financial Statements 2009 – thetorproject.org
- The Tor Project Financial Statements 2011 – thetorproject.org
- The Tor Project Financial Statements 2012 – thetorproject.org
- The Tor Project Financial Statements 2013 – thetorproject.org
- The Tor Project IRS Return 2007 – thetorproject.org
- The Tor Project IRS Return 2008 – thetorproject.org
- The Tor Project IRS Return 2009 – thetorproject.org
- The Tor Project IRS Return 2010 – thetorproject.org
- The Tor Project IRS Return 2011 – thetorproject.org
- The Tor Project IRS Return 2012 – thetorproject.org
- The Tor Project IRS Return 2013 – thetorproject.org
- Iranian Protesters Avoid Censorship with Navy Technology – washingtontimes.com
- A Guide to the Silk Road Shutdown – wired.co.uk
- Out in the Open: Inside the Operating System Edward Snowden Used to Evade the NSA – wired.com
- Tor Researcher Who Exposed Embassy E-mail Passwords Gets Raided by Swedish FBI and CIA – wired.com
- WikiLeaks Was Launched With Documents Intercepted From Tor – wired.com