Over the past six months, I’ve published a series of stories on the longstanding and deeply conflicted financial relationship between the Tor Project and various arms of the US National Security State. Those arms include the Pentagon, the State Department and a CIA spinoff called the BBG that’s dedicated to waging propaganda warfare against countries hostile to US interests.
The articles traced the history of Tor “onion routing” technology and the US military-intelligence apparatus that built it, and explored the role that Tor plays as a soft-power weapon of US empire. They also investigated the sources of Tor’s continued US government support which amounts to 70 to 100% of Tor’s annual budget.
Pando’s reporting triggered a massive public debate in the privacy movement about the Tor Project, and the benefits and efficacy of encryption politics in general. It also raised serious questions about Tor’s continued close collaboration with law enforcement agencies in the US and abroad.
As I’ve written before, this reporting also made me and others at Pando the targets of a strange and often vicious smear campaign, led by a senior Tor developer. At one point, the smears got so out of hand that Tor’s executive director Andrew Lewman had to launch an internal HR investigation into one of his highest paid staffers. Unfortunately, after initially promising full transparency, Lewman refused to make the results of this investigation public.
Still, after months of silence, we have finally learned of one solid step that Lewman and the Tor Project are taking to combat increasing public unease over Tor’s coziness with its national security funders:
It hired a corporate PR firm to combat Pando’s reporting.
As first reported by the Daily Dot’s Patrick Howell O’Neill (emphasis mine):
Under a brightening spotlight, the Tor Project has hired a public relations firm and launched a robust media operation as part of an effort to take greater charge of the increasingly tumultuous public conversation about anonymity on the Internet and Tor itself.
In October 2014, Tor hired Thomson Communications, a Boston-based public relations firm that works with clients ranging from Verizon Wireless to the local healthcare industry. The Tor Project is based in Boston. One of Thomson’s early charges was to fuel press publicity for Tor’s growing relationship with Mozilla.
The firm also gave media training for Tor personnel that followed months of eruptive online vitriol between Tor’s supporters and its critics.
Tor’s new initiative comes in the wake of a series of articles from Pando Daily exploring the relationship between the Tor Project and the US government, which developed the technology and continues to provide the bulk of the project’s annual funding.
Yes, the same Tor that promised to be entirely open and honest in its dealings with the press has hired the same PR agency that helps Verizon spread its corporate message.
If that wasn’t strange enough, the story gets even more interesting. Because Tor didn’t just contract with an outside PR company, but decided to set up its own internal public relations operation as well — a move that the Daily Dot described as “unprecedented for the organization.”
Tor’s new dedicated public relations staffer is named Kate Krauss and comes with international activist/foreign policy public relations experience. Her main PR objective: to change the way that people — and especially journalists — think and talk about Tor.
Here’s the Daily Dot again…
First order of business: Fundamentally changing the language used when people talk about the Tor Project and online anonymity…
In the immediate future, Tor will be taking a much more proactive approach to media. For example, Krauss will be putting together a glossary of Tor-related terms meant particularly for journalists who regularly struggle to understand the technical side of Tor and then explain it to readers.
Right away, Krauss is setting out to solve one of the great problems Tor has always faced: How do you tell the story of users who are meant to be anonymous?
…The people that Tor will connect with journalists are volunteers who want their story shared—at least to an extent.
The challenges are myriad: How do you balance security versus publicity? Fake names, photographs without faces, and various other identity masks are in Tor’s arsenal here. “We know how to do it, but we won’t tell you everything,” Krauss said.
…Tor also hopes to personally train journalists and is considering holding conferences in order to more closely interact with them.
“We want to put together materials and events for reporters to understand it as a group in order to raise the literacy level on Tor,” Krauss said.
Sounds nice and helpful — especially given Tor’s renewed commitment to working with law enforcement in the US and overseas. Earlier this year Lewman told a UK parliamentary commission on encryption technology that Tor would “like to intensify collaborations with [law enforcement agencies] and policy makers in the UK.”
The only catch to Tor’s new public relations blitz? It might be illegal.
As Paul Carr previously reported, the US Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (known as the Smith-Mundt Act) expressly banned the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors from engaging in or broadcasting propaganda within US borders. In 2013, the Obama administration revised the Smith-Mundt Act to widen the range of propaganda activities that are allowed on US soil. But the bill still made it illegal for both BBG and the State Department to fund any effort or organization that seeks to intentionally influence or sway public opinion at home.
The relevant segment of the law very clearly states:
No funds authorized to be appropriated to the Department of State or the Broadcasting Board of Governors shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States.
As we’ve previously reported, the Tor Project received at least $ 3 million from the State Department from 2007 through 2013 — most of it coming through State Department’s “Democracy, Human Rights and Labor” regime change arm. Tor also took in $ 3.5 million from the Broadcasting Board of Governors in those same years. Overall, funds from State Department and BBG accounted for over two-thirds of Tor’s budget — that’s not small change.
We’ve previously asked both the State Department and the BBG to comment on Tor’s use of their funding to support a spin campaign against journalists but both have declined to comment.
Want to know more? Read Pando’s latest report on Tor and Internet freedom: “Internet privacy, funded by spooks: A brief history of the BBG“