Nonprofit Helps Egyptian Internet Activists Protect Their Identities

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January 30, 2011; Source: Boston Globe | In a Massachusetts suburb that is also home to the state’s maximum security prison, a small nonprofit is helping activists in Egypt to protect their identities and avoid censorship online. In the last few days as demonstrations heated up in Egypt the number of downloads of the anonymity software the organization provides free increased by 200 percent and most of that traffic was Egyptian. The software is meant to protect activists from online surveillance by repressive regimes.

The organization that provides the anti-surveillance tools is called Tor and was founded by two M.I.T. students in league with a U.S. Navy Laboratory in 2001. Its own description of its services on its website states, “Tor protects you by bouncing your communications around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world: it prevents somebody watching your Internet connection from learning what sites you visit, and it prevents the sites you visit from learning your physical location. Tor works with many of your existing applications, including web browsers, instant messaging clients, remote login, and other applications based on the TCP protocol.”

The numbers of those downloads saw a sharp decline on Thursday night, however, when the Egyptian government cut off much of the public’s access to the internet. This is not the first uprising in which Tor has played a part. In the aftermath of the 2009 election in Iran, activists downloaded the software en masse, according to the Boston Globe.

The organization is hardly a completely independent entity since, according to the Globe, it receives 75 percent of its funding from the U.S. government. And in fact, its website advertises its services (aimed at providing a blind to investigations and surveillance) to the U.S. government and Law Enforcement. But that is not the organization’s only interesting connection. Jacob Applebaum, one of Tor’s software developers, also works with WikiLeaks.

The article says that Applebaum, speaking to the reporter by phone, “suggested that the Internet activists in Egypt who are using Tor to conceal their identities are not merely organizing meetings in the streets, but may also be engaging in on-line resistance activities, such as disrupting the Egyptian stock market or banking activities.” Intriguing. —Ruth McCambridge