Is Jump In ToR Use Blowback From PRISM?

It’s ironic that government surveillance might push the public to embrace technology pioneered by the Department of Defense. But so it is: new metrics from The Tor Project show that use of the online anonymity service has exploded since early June: up more than 100 percent, from just over 500,000 global users to more than 1.2 million.

ToR Spike
Use of the ToR anonymity service spiked to over 1.2m users worldwide in the last month.

Why the sudden surge in privacy conscious Internet users? It would be easy to connect the dots between revelations about the U.S. government’s omnibus data gathering program PRISM and the sudden desire of Internet users to sacrifice some speed and performance for the privilege of having their online doings passed through The Onion Router. Still, it’s not clear that this is the case.

To be sure: growth is being seen across the board, not just in active users, but in the number of ToR clients running, the data suggests. There are steep increases in many of the countries who were affected directly by revelations of spying by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) stemming from the leak of classified documents by the former contractor Edward Snowden. The U.S., Germany and the UK all saw steep increases in ToR use, with even more pronounced jumps (percentage-wise) in developing nations like India and Brazil.

But the increase doesn’t automatically mean that Internet users are scrambling for the shelter of ToR out of fear of government surveillance. History shows that there have been previous spikes in ToR use – notably in late 2011 and early 2012 (albeit not this large). And, increasingly, malicious actors are among the most enthusiastic users of ToR and other online anonymity services. In recent months, botnet operators and other cyber criminals have latched on to ToR as a useful tool to hide command and control servers that manage their armies of infected computers. A sudden spike in systems running the ToR client could indicate that the platform has been co-opted.


But an increase in interest, globally, in ToR would jive with reports from other privacy protecting services. The firm Silent Circle told The Security Ledger that it has seen near-exponential growth in demand for its secure voice and video services since news of the NSA’s PRISM program began making headlines. But the firm has also been forced to discontinue a secure e-mail service, Silent Mail, after it became clear that it was vulnerable to subpoenas from the government or National Security Letters.

ToR was launched in 2004 and grew out of research performed by the U.S. Naval Research Lab, which developed the concept of “onion routing” with the support of the DoD’s DARPA program. The service has been popular among privacy conscious users for years, but has received considerable publicity in the wake of revelations about warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries by the National Security Agency. ToR was a prominent feature of more than one “what you need to do to protect yourself from mass surveillance” feature. There’s some irony to that. Top secret rules about what might prompt surveillance by the government include the use of anonymizing services like ToR.

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