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Politics & Current Affairs

Volunteers Wanted For Anonymous Internet Network Support

The Tor Project was originally created to hide dissidents’ online activity in countries that censor the Internet. Westerners now make up a significant share of its volunteer base, but signing on comes with risks.

What’s the Latest Development?

The Tor Project, a nonprofit organization that grew from a US Naval Laboratory research effort in the mid-1990s, is looking for users who are willing to let their computers serve as “nodes” in a network that allows completely anonymous Internet surfing. Currently there are 3,200 such nodes worldwide, enough to handle two million users’ worth of data daily, but it needs another 6,800 in order to grow, according to Tor executive director Andrew Lewman. Eighty percent of the project’s $2 million budget comes from different US government agencies that support scientific research and free speech.

What’s the Big Idea?

Originally the Tor Project was designed to help sustain dissident activity in countries where the Internet is censored, such as China. However, criminals appreciate the anonymity as well, and the network is regularly used to trade child pornography and other illegal content. Consequently, volunteering for Tor carries a risk of having one’s computer seized by authorities, and there’s very little anyone can do about it. Marcia Hofmann, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (one of Tor’s partners), says US law likely protects volunteers “but it hasn’t been tested in court.” 

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