Processing Distortion with Peter B. Collins: Tor’s PR Moves May Violate Law

Peter B. Collins Presents Journalist Yasha Levine

Updating his reports on the Tor encryption system, Yasha Levine of Pando reveals that Tor management has added a staff public relations person and Thomson Communications, a corporate PR firm that has represented the telco Verizon. The assignment appears to be to reshape perceptions of Tor following Pando’s exposure that most Tor funding comes from the State Department and its Broadcast Board of Governors. The taxpayer-funded PR offensive appears to directly violate the law banning attempts to influence public opinion in the US. Levine also comments on the indicted DEA and Secret Service agents accused of using Tor to steal bitcoin in the Silk Road case, and on the recent “dick pic” interview of Ed Snowden by HBO’s John Oliver.

*Yasha Levine is an investigative reporter for He is grateful for the success of his Kickstarter campaign to fund his new book project, Surveillance Valley.

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  1. Good show, Peter. There are layers of reasons to ask serious questions about something which seems too good to be true, especially when it’s ‘free’.

    The Tor website is quite open about the fact that government entities make use of Tor for the purpose of defeating traffic analysis, same as every other Tor user. The nature of Tor is such that the more users it accumulates, the better job it does statistically in terms of obfuscating identifying information of all users. Increasing the user base of Tor in the name of making it more effective could be seen as a legitimate interest of government entities which make use of it. That said…

    I’ve never used Tor and don’t anticipate using it, ever. My abstention is not necessarily because I believe the onion routing scheme or even the toolsets provided for using it, are over-hyped or fraudulent. The thing is, it all may not NEED to be inherently deceptive in any manner in order to nonetheless accomplish important intelligence-gathering objectives for state security.

    1. Assuming state security is sniffing at the ISP level, it could probably detect signatures of traffic headed for Tor entry points. Bingo, the fact that you’re part of the relatively small minority using Tor, classifies you as a ‘more interesting’ person.

    2. Tor users hardly ever apply additional encryption. Traffic bound for a Tor entry point is probably, as I said above, detectable. State security therefore automatically has a category of collected data from ‘more interesting persons’, which has no additional encryption to overcome.

    3. So what if you use Tor to defeat traffic analysis, AND you apply an additional layer of end-to-end encryption to protect your content? Congratulations, you’re truly part of a minority of a minority! Guess what this means to state security? Yes, you’re now ‘way more interesting’ than ordinary. You are now worthy of deeper analysis, cross-correlation, possibly even having your Tor traffic traced by matching your data going into Tor with data emerging from exit nodes. (they don’t need to decrypt the data in real-time to simply match up the patterns) This tracing technique is hit-or-miss for any given packet, but a typical session between two entities is typically composed of thousands of packets, so even a small tracking success rate probably suffices to establish who is talking to who.

    Presuming EVERYTHING moving across the Internet is collected automatically, which I think is a safe presumption, functional loss of privacy occurs when the collected data is extracted and analyzed in some manner which reveals our identity. If the data is never analyzed while we live, it’s like film which is never developed. Thus the conundrum inherent in taking extraordinary steps to conceal the content and/or the routing of our data, in that doing so almost inevitably creates a detectable signature which probably routes our data automatically into a ‘special’ bin where it’s sure to receive extra scrutiny. The harder we try to conceal all aspects, the more ‘special’ the bins our data falls into.

    It sounds simplistic, but it seems to me still, that the best security is obscurity.

    • Very well said Knarf. I couldn’t agree more.

    • There’s a few VPN services out there that mix tor and encrypted vpn at the same time. To me it’s the only way I can see it being useful for people like say Michael Haestings…. I’ve given up thinking I’m worth anything to these people, if I was healthy I would still be in “the fight” or w/e. I’ve experienced major bonding and changing of minds at the local level just in the hardcore punk scene when I was younger, people going from meatheads to politically aware, vegetarian who vote with their dollar etc.

      So of course cops would often try to intimidate the venues where shows happened. When I go back to my hometown it’s depressing, main street used to have 6 or 7 clubs for grassroots not-on-the-internet evolutionary thinking humans to congregate to. Now there is ONE. And although I’m not a smoker and can relate to people who don’t and find it smells horrible, when the nanny state in this province banned cigarettes in bars and clubs in may 2006, it killed most of the bars, clubs, main streets etc. Lots of people at the same place who are unfriendly to authority, we have to destroy it!

      And the internet did seem promising in the 90’s and early 2000’s, then sometimes around 2006 so many people who cannot operate a computer started showing up, I got my first invitation to Farcebook in 2006 in my hotmail account from an absolute nobody I didn’t know. How did that happen? So these days I just use a VPS or not, have scripts randomly browsing the web with my real IP. I tried a VPN service that blends in Tor, it worked, and the fact you end up with the IP you chose from the VPN’s list of towns and not a random Tor IP address and that it was making me impossible to detect at exit nodes was great. But I couldn’t get it to work in Linux, which is supposedly very easy, -50 points there. And once in Win7, it was very CPU intensive and I got a powerful 8 core AMD 8350 machine as my main desktop, I could run it but I could feel the desktop not enjoying it and the fans were running like if I was playing a video game, and from what I remember of my Computer Science related classes I had to take, it was normal, especially under Win7, 64 bit or not. Tor to me if you ignore who wants it to exist can be a tool, but it’s a tool to mix in your toolbox, not a means to an end.

  2. RSA also was just about the math:

    TOR in two words: controlled opposition.

  3. Another great interview. I’m not surprised about the smear campaign being directed Levine, or Pando for that matter, but falsely accusing someone of dealing with child pornography? (I think that’s what he said) That’s beyond low. I’m glad that the outpouring of support confirms that people recognize the value of this reporting. Ironically, similarly to what Knarf pointed out, the extraordinary measures Tor is taking to cover their asses only draws attention to and validates the credibility of Levine’s critique.

    Also, the point about obscuring the ramifications for journalists trying to do any serious reporting on corporate/governmental activities in a Matrix like construct by failing to emphasize this threat, which helps to explain the logic behind the whole Snowden episode, really rings true.

    • I saw some site decrying Levine as a Soviet and a communist….while his family escaped the USSR due to it being an authoritarian regime. It was so painful to read after 3 sentences I closed it so I can’t link it (sometimes it’s fun to cringe at morons but this one was unacceptable even for me.

      • @Marty:

        It was so painful to read after 3 sentences I closed it

        A great way to put it. Sometimes the stuff is so stupid and over the top that it has comedic value, but sometimes; particularly with this kind of underhanded stuff, it’s just intolerable.

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