In the wake of Edward Snowden’s PRISM-revealing NSA leak, web users concerned about online privacy have flocked to Tor – a heavily encrypted network that helps to cover their virtual tracks. The Tor network’s user base more than doubled in August, likely in reaction to the reports of widespread government spying.
“[Tor] had been humming along with an average base of around 500,000 directly connected users for most of the year,” said The Resister. But that started to change around mid-August, and the results were both sudden and dramatic. As of Wednesday, the Tor network was seeing more than 1,200,000 users connecting daily – a figure that topped the previous record of around 950,000 global daily users in January 2012.”
Tor, which is short for “The Onion Router,” was initially developed by the U.S. Navy as a tool for government officials, activists, journalists, and dissidents to conceal their online activity. In an ironic twist, the government-initiated service has become home to “deep web” sites like the illegal drug marketplaces Atlantis and Silk Road – as well as hosting popular file-sharing sites like The Pirate Bay. Compounding that irony is the fact that the U.S. government created Tor as a safety net for “whistleblowers” – but is now jailing and hunting them down.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
While Tor can help to hide a user’s electronic fingerprints, the service isn’t completely anonymous. “Internet Service Providers are able to detect Tor usage on their networks and trace it back to the Internet user,” wrote The Daily Caller.
Earlier this month, secure email services Lavabit and Silent Circle voluntarily shut down after government pressure to reveal private email exchanges – a possible reason for the uptick in Tor interest. Lavabit owner Ladar Levison claimed that his decision to cease operations was to avoid “becom[ing] complicit in crimes against the American people.”
Ladar, in an interview with The Guardian, added: “We are entering a time of state-sponsored intrusion into our privacy that we haven't seen since the McCarthy era. And it's on a much broader scale … My own tax dollars are being used to spy on me.”
Another incident, the nine-hour detention and questioning of Glenn Greenwald’s partner at Heathrow Airport, preceded a surge in Tor usage. Greenwald, The Guardian journalist who broke the PRISM story, has been scrutinized by the U.S. and U.K. for his decision to report on Snowden’s PRISM documents.
“Sure enough, Tor users in the U.S. and the U.K. made up a large portion of the total in August. Around 90,000 Americans were connecting to Tor daily at the start of the month, but that figure grew to around 150,000 daily users by the end. UK daily users grew from around 16,000 to more than 35,000,” reported The Register.
Perhaps surprisingly, India and China also saw increase Tor usage during August. India went from 7,500 daily users to 32,000. China registered about 400 Tor users – an impressive number considering its government’s extremely tight “Great Firewall” regulations.