The Tor Project has been waiting for an opportunity like this.
The privacy-focused organization for years has been developing technology to help web users browse the internet without prying eyes of repressive governments or Silicon Valley giants. Surveillance and the collection of personal data continues to be a fundamental problem for internet users, as evidenced by the number of data breaches in recent months involving information about hundreds of millions of people.
Tor now has a new leadership team which aims to use the growing awareness about the proliferation of personal data as fuel for the privacy’s organization’s growth.
That team just needs to figure out how to pay for it.
The research-based nonprofit that’s responsible for the Tor browser — a free software tool that obscures a user’s location, browsing activity and other identifying data — gets funding from the U.S. government. First developed by the U.S. military to shield intelligence sources and fight censorship, the browser has become the gateway to the dark web, and its many marketplaces that provide access to all kinds of contraband.
Roughly 2 million people worldwide connect to the Tor browser everyday, though only 600,000 are active users, said Isabela Bagueros, who took over as Tor’s new executive director in November. Tor can’t quantify the number of people who use the anonymous service but does track client requests to directories, which happens when users periodically need to update their relays, according to Tor’s website. Relays help protect user traffic, and estimating the number of requests helps Tor extrapolate the total number of users, the site said.
Bagueros wants to build on that 2 million figure, with the thinking that if that user adoption increases, so will donations. To make that a reality, she plans to lean on lessons learned during her time at Twitter, where she watched the company grow from a startup with few hundred employees to a publicly traded company.
“You think about every single thing [in] the user experience,” she said. “It’s about investments and rewards and how we’re actually onboarding users and explaining the features. Giving users more control over their experience will lead to higher retention because…it will all be in a more understandable way.”
The Tor Project in September released an alpha version of an Android app to help mobile users communicate in private. The finished application is slated to be complete in early 2019, an effort Bagueros predicted will help Tor reach new users as international mobile adoption grows.
Bagueros said the organization aims to increase private donations by stepping up its international outreach — Tor employees have traveled to Africa, Asia and Latin America to train new users — and being more transparent with users about why the service lags in performance to other widely-used options.
“We want people, when they see our brand, to think about privacy,” she said. “We’re going to work to demystify the dark web, and expand privacy education globally.”
Fifty-one percent of Tor’s 2017 operating budget came from the U.S. government, according to a financial transparency report published Saturday. Government funding is down from 76 percent in 2016, and 85 percent in 2015, according to the report. The revenue in 2017 also grew by nearly $1 million, powered by funding from corporate sources including Mozilla, Reddit and DuckDuckGo, Bagueros said.
There is some urgency to Tor’s fundraising. The organization has long been a target of criticism from the law enforcement community, which believes the service facilitates criminal activity. Additionally, security practitioners question whether a government-funded service can live up to the promise of providing anonymity. While Bagueros says the Trump administration has yet to cut funding, other public officials have indicated such an option is not off the table.
Richard Downing, a deputy assistant general at the U.S. Department of Justice, in a November conference said U.S. government funds accounted for 80 percent to 90 percent of the organization’s budget, according to Politico. He went on to suggest the government should reconsider that investment, pointing to the difficulty of investigating crime on anonymous websites.
Threats like that are squarely on the mind of the new executive director. Bagueros took over from Shari Steele, who left the post in November after a three-year stint in which she spent much of her time navigating the fallout from sexual assault allegations against former Tor staffer Jacob Appelbaum. Appelbaum, once a high-profile activist in the privacy community, has denied the allegations but the case reportedly left Tor deeply divided internally.
Bagueros spent much of the past three years trying to help legitimize the organization by working as a project manager. In that capacity, she helped organize teams to work on the Tor network and browser while pushing for metrics and user-experience (UX) design principles.
Now, as director, she intends to accelerate that process.
“I want Tor to become adult,” she said. “I’ve given myself the next three years to bring us into a more mature position, so we’re expanding and need to learn how to do that. Expansion means you have a higher bill at the end of the month, and you have more people who are involved working together. It’s a beautiful problem.”