The Tor Project, Protecting Online Anonimity: Jacob Appelbaum at TEDxFlanders (Transcript)

Following is the full transcript of journalist and computer security researcher Jacob Appelbaum’s TEDx Talk: The Tor Project, Protecting Online Anonimity at TEDxFlanders conference. This event occurred on October 20, 2012. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.

Hi there. It’s a great pleasure to be here and I’m really excited, actually, to see so many familiar faces. And I wanted to tell about my story and how I came to work in anonymity. 18 minutes isn’t really a lot of time to sum up a decade of work, but, I’ll try.

And I’ll start by saying that I met Roger Dingledine, Rachel Greenstadt and Nick Mathewson at a Hacker Convention in Las Vegas. And they told me about this idea, this idea of anonymity. This idea that every person has the right to speak freely, the right to read without exception. This idea that it should be available to each person. They introduced me to the philosophy but also to the technology.

And the technology was very fascinating to me. Overall, what I found to be interesting was this idea that not one human should be excepted from the basic human rights, that we, generally, I think, as a world, agree should exist, should be something that is equally accessible to all, regardless of class, race, gender, sexual orientation.

But what does that actually mean? Well, it turns out, for the Tor Project — which is a free software project for freedom, that I and many others work on — what it means is to actually put enabling technology into the hands of each person so that they can choose whether or not they wish to use it.

And so, what Roger and Nick and Rachel and other members of the Tor Project — who are incredibly inspirational to me — what they were able to show me was that by making it free software, this means that each person would be able to inspect the software — should they wish — or to delegate that task to someone who understands that. It means that each person without cost would be able to use the system and it would allow them to communicate across boundaries that previously were not something that they could transgress without serious risk. This kind of idea, it doesn’t seem terribly radical, I think, in the West. But in some parts of the world this is extremely radical, this notion that you have the right to speak freely, that you do not have to add a national ID card to every statement that you sign, that in fact you might want to show evidence of a crime and you don’t want to take any credit at all for that. In some ways it’s a strange thing.

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But in some fields it makes sense. We all have our own personal relationship to privacy and to anonymity. And, we just don’t call it that, usually. So, everyone in this room seems to be wearing clothes, as an example. I want to use the example of curtains in the window but the Dutch, well — curtains and windows that’s not really a good privacy enhancing technology since so many people seem to not use them. But clothes are a good one, because clothes are an example of how technology and society may not be perfect, but we’re still going to try anyway.

And so, what Tor as an anonymity system is trying to do is to give us some autonomy, so that we have the ability to choose when we wish, a thing which we do not claim as perfect, but we claim is better than what we have without this system.

And, what is that exactly? It’s a simple piece of software that you install on your computer or onto your telephone, that can be used with web browsers, with chat programs or whatever you’d like. So if you want to leak a document to the New York Times, or to a reputable source like WikiLeaks, then you could very easily use something like Tor to do that. It is essentially agnostic in the sense that if it runs over the protocol known as TCP/IP, that’s specifically TCP, then that will be something that will work with Tor.

So, if you use the Internet, you’re probably able to do a lot of the things you do on the Internet with Tor. But, to actually talk about why you would want to do that, we sort of have to address what it is that we want to think about. And so, when we talk about anonymity in the Tor project, it usually creates a strange feeling for people. For example, they say, “Well, you know, I don’t really have anything to hide” or “Well, I’m using this service and they promised that they won’t, you know, they won’t do anything bad with that data.” So what we want to do is to create a clear dividing line between what we would call privacy by policy and privacy by design.

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Privacy by policy is where a group of people collect all of your private — ostensibly private — communications and information, and they promise that they’re not going to give it to anyone else. Sounds like a great deal right? So, think about it this way: how many of you, if I could have a show of hands in the audience, would be willing to have a stranger, completely — have all of the information on your government issued ID cards and everything in your wallet, which was issued by an agency of some kind or a company how many of people here would just empty their wallet on the street and show all of that to a random passer-by that asked for it? Anybody here? I’m glad there is at least one person. Thanks!

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