Tors new executive director Shari Steele wants to change the image of the anonymous browser, and make its hard to use technology more friendly for the user. When she took the job at Tor after 15 years at San Francisco based Electronic Frontier Foundation, Shari had something in common with most Internet users; she had never used the Tor browser before.
Tor still occupies a pretty small corner of the internet with around 2.5 million users logging into Tor daily to encrypt and mask their internet traffic. Browsers like Google Chrome shadow Tor with 3.5 billion search queries every day. Among the growing concern for digital privacy worldwide and in the US, Steele wants to use her experience building non-profit organizations, as opposed to her technical skills to more Tor out from the corners of the internet.
“When Coca-Cola hires a new CEO, it doesn’t matter ver much if they drink Coca-Cola,” she said. “My hiring was part of an effort not to be this little fringe software project.”
The FBI’s legal case against Apple to unlock the IPhone used in the San Dernardino shooting hasn’t hurt them either. Tor’s message to people concerned about digital privacy as a result of the lawsuit was, basically, if youre worried about government snooping, “We will never backdoor our software.”
As Tor steps more into the spotlight, its getting some high-profile assistance. Edward Snowden, who was featured in the oganizations recent fundraising campaign, “This is What a Tor Supporter Looks Like, tweeted in December, “Without Tor, wen you walk the streets of the internet, youre always watched.”
Along with Snowden’s endorsement, the Tor Supporter campaign is attempting to change Tor’s image problem. Law enforcement officials often make Tor out to be a haven for criminals and pedophiles who use it to avoid being caught. A study published in February found that 57% of active hidden services sites developed for Tor help conceal users’ locations are intended for some kind of illicit or criminal activity.
Steeles work so far is stressing the legitimate services Tor provides people who need privacy online. “Private kinds of searches have never really reached their full potential, and that’s partially because Tor is clunky and hard to use,” Steel said. “But it can help people secretly look up different kinds of medical treatment, or consider changes in their sexual orientation.”
Before Steele came to Tor, they had already began working to make its technology more approachable. In October, it launched Tor Messenger. A crowdfunding campaign brought in over $200,000 in donations over six weeks. In January Facebook announced plans to let Tor users connec through an Android application.
“When Tor becomes easy to use, we can expect it to become a default,” said tech blogger and journalist Cory Doctorow. “ There’s no way to make a Tor that can protect people from surveillance from governments without protecting them from the FBI.”
While Steele worked with the EFF, she proved she’s an effective digital rights advocate. She pushed to lower sentencing guidlinges for the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act,, the federal governments chief law used to punish criminal hackers. She successfully sued the US State Department in a case that established code as constitutionally protected free speech, as well.
“People say we’re responsible for the Dark Web,” Steele said. “That’s not why Tor is essential. It’s like sayin people hide behind the first amendment to do Nazi activity. That’s not why the first amendment exists.”