Unfavorable Tor Developer Headlines: Smear Campaign or Happenstance?

Dimitri M

Dimitri M

June 5, 2016

Were the recent public attacks on the character and conduct of one prominent Tor developer and the US government subpoena served to another part of a coordinated strategy based on swaying legal and public opinions in an effort to weaken arguably the strongest cyber-anonymity tool that currently exists? It’s a fairly inconclusive question that still manages to leave two uniquely divergent conclusions, and maybe a third if you’re into cynical outcomes.

The first case revolves around the all too familiar though altogether no less unsettling attempts by intelligence services – The F.B.I. – to compromise Tor by tapping Isis Lovecruft to install backdoors on software she worked on or reveal any preexisting holes in the system architecture in addition to individual user data. Flying to Berlin last December was an unexpected curveball to the agents that had visited her family and aggressively pursued what they thought was an ideal target for intimidation judging by her comments below and standing within the infosec community.

[“That would undermine all the work that we do to protect human rights activists, women researching birth control… all these people need privacy. They need what Tor provides,” she said. “I would not undermine that.”]


Yesterday, Tor Executive Director Shari Steele revealed agglomerating reports of inappropriate sexual conduct against noted hacktivist and Tor project developer Jacob Appelbaum. It isn’t currently clear what the exact accusations are, any inevitable media or personal attempts to dredge up a man’s past vulnerable confessions would be lazy mudslinging and irresponsible journalism. That said, victims are understandably hesitant to come forth in such highly personal and traumatic situations as those purportedly reaching a crescendo after circulating as whispers and shadows for some time. The feelings and voices of any individual who’s been coerced or violated in any way should be helped and heard rather than discredited at every turn, just as Mr. Applebaum deserves his right to due process by both the media and potentially the law.

*Update 06/6/16 – “… I think it’s extremely damaging to the community that these character-assassination tactics are being deployed, especially given their ugly history of being used against fellow members of the LGBT community. It pains me to watch the community to which I’ve dedicated so much of my life engage in such self-destructive behavior. Nonetheless, I am prepared to use legal channels, if necessary, to defend my reputation from these libelous accusations… ” Mr. Applebaum’s full response here.

Tor Developer Allegations

At the end of April, the US Supreme Court passed Rule 41 which granted national cyber-defense teams (including the F.B.I.), judicial authority to hack ‘super computers’ or disparate geographic networks (regardless of jurisdiction), such as Tor. That this took place within 40 odd days of the separate headlines surrounding Lovecruft and Applebaum doesn’t exactly give off the feeling of mundane coincidence, while not quite pumping the mass-hysteria conspiracy theory mill into warp drive either.

Rule 4l

The new laws taking effect January 1st, 2017 (if Congress doesn’t repeal the Bill by then), is at least a tad suspect, raising yet another crucial policy battlefield at stake in this increasingly farcical upcoming election. Freedom inclined Americans and privacy fans the world over have one more reason to watch unfolding developments with a healthy degree of skepticism – and wait for conclusive evidence to emerge before brandishing the effigies – as if they didn’t already.

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