Chapter 6: Edward Snowden and the Chamber of Secrets

Edward Snowden was a former NSA agent that ended up deciding one day that the government had to go. As an NSA agent, Edward had ultimate access to many files and in (date), he let them all out. He exposed that the government was hidden behind every major tech giant, funding them and drawing data from them through PRISM. After the leaks went out, Snowden was seen as a thorn in the side of the government and a hero by cypherpunks that wanted to get rid of the government. With all that was leaked of the major tech companies like Google and Facebook and their connections to government intelligence, recovery should’ve been impossible. After all, they were the ones supplying the CIA, NSA and other agencies information so surely they should’ve been murdered by Snowden’s leaks. Unsurprisingly, Google and Facebook played the blame game, stating and lying that the government had taken the information against their knowledge.

It worked.

Like a terribly written script to a movie like Suicide Squad, Edward Snowden happened to be a firm believer in technology and therefore didn’t believe that the tech giants had done something wrong but rather were being played by the ultimate puppet master, the US government. Somehow, someway, the man that was about to kill every single tech giant with a business model of user profiling had just given mercy by directing attention away from them. By focusing the attention wholly on the US Government, the government who was almost one and the same with Google and Facebook, just took the blows, absorbed the damage and let the tech companies recover. It was like trying to kill a hydra with a sword. When one head dies, two more take its place. Eventually,  Snowden had to move to Moscow because the figurehead of the US government was allegedly hunting him. Snowden managed to hide there in Moscow, untraceable, all thanks to Tor

Chapter 7: The rise and fall of the Onion shield.

I’m going to split this summary into two sections because there are two stories at play here: The history of Tor’s success and how they fell.


Around (date), an illegal online businesses site named Silk Road, which sold drugs, child porn and other horrific things, run by a person named Dread Pirate Roberts, grew in popularity and found massive success. How did such an illegal site become so successful when the internet is so heavily surveilled? It used a separate web browser, private URL, Bitcoin to make transactions untraceable and most notably, Tor.

Tor was a VPN and more. The way it worked, a user would connect to Tor, have the address be sent to thousands of location and then end up at its destination. As Levine described it ‘From the outside, the Tor connection just appeared and if you tried to trace it back, Tor would act as a dead-end’. Because of this, Edward Snowden often promoted the usage of Tor as a tool against government surveillance. Google and Facebook both promoted Tor as well, despite having business models reliant on surveillance. Why? Because Tor was useless against them. If you used Silk Road’s measures, Tor would in fact make it impossible for your data to be taken but in the hands of the average person, many were likely to continue Googling their searches and using Facebook to contact friends or browse Twitter on the way to work etc. Simply put, if the average user just used Tor and did nothing different, Tor was useless against company surveillance. However, what was weirder still was the fact much of Tor’s funding came from the government it was supposedly hiding from. Levine made sense of this once he looked at Tor’s Origins

In the wake of the internet, it was decided almost immediately that the government should use it for spying. However, if spies couldn’t have privacy then it would be like seeing your assassin coming for you through sliding glass double doors. You can’t be an undercover agent if there isn’t any cover. Tor was the solution. Spawned by DARPA, a familiar name among the surveillance valley narrative, Tor would provide privacy to spies using the same technique it used today. However, there was a problem: if the only people that used Tor were spies then any connection that traced to Tor could be identified as a spy. This meant that in order for Tor to keep spies anonymous, it would need to branch into the public and of course, that’s exactly what happened. The Tor Project was finally made it to the form of a non-profit project while keeping its DARPA funding. Eventually, Tor managed to get funding from someone that wasn’t a military contractor: The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). With the EFF’s funding, Tor now had a window to branch into the public. Despite being a privacy advocacy group, the EFF had actually helped the FBIA ‘pass the Communications Assistance Law Enforcement Act, which required all telecommunications companies to build their equipment so it could be wiretapped by the FBI’. Finally, in 2006, Dingledine had received the green-light for advancing Tor, backing by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which had initially formed to broadcast anti-communist propaganda everywhere possible in the Cold War. With the BBG now behind their backs, all Tor needed was a way to convince the public to relax about Tor, to forget the government funding and start using Tor, and what better way to convince people you aren’t with the government than make them believe you’re literally their greatest enemy. I’d imagine those were the thoughts of Dingledine as he saw the opportunity manifest in front of him

In 2008, Dingledine hired a man named Jacob Appelbaum to help improve Tor. However, it quickly became apparent that Appelbaum would be much better at marketing themselves as something that wasn’t just another string in the US Government’s web of power. Unlike most other Tor workers, Appelbaum ‘had flair, a taste for drama and hyperbole’. It would be Appelbaum who would be the first to promote Tor as a weapon against government oppression and evidence of Tor’s success would come with Silk Road. If an entire criminal business can be built on Tor, why wouldn’t it work for the average user? To many, Silk Road only confirmed that Tor worked on a massive scale.

However, there was another important aspect, Tor now could be used to ‘liberate’ people from government censorship. Sites like Facebook and Google, which were blocked in certain countries such as China, could now be accessed and users would be able to be influenced and in some cases, start revolutions on social media. Social media was now a handheld weapon for propaganda and nobody even noticed because it was so intertwined with our culture.


No strings on Me

In 2014, a group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University managed to crack the code and get by Tor’s layers of defences. This caused Dingledine, the founder of Tor, to post an update to the ethics behind analysing Tor, effectively acknowledging that a group of students had just made it past Tor’s promise of ultimate privacy. Around the same time, a man named Ross Ulbricht was arrested for being Dread Pirate Roberts and of course, everything that he had done in his time with Silk Road including ‘money laundering, narcotics trafficking, hacking and murder’. If Tor was so secure, why would it need to update the policies behind accessing and researching people that use Tor and how could it be possible for Dread Pirate Roberts to be identified? Short answer: it wasn’t.

From the beginning, Tor had been kept in check by the government. When Silk Road grew in popularity, a DHS agent had already taken over the account of a Silk Road admin, therefore granting federal agencies an all-access pass into Silk Road. Similarly, Tor itself had always been subordinate to government surveillance because Google and Apple-owned the popular phone operating systems that Tor would run on, therefore all the data could be fed through PRISM to the CIA before any of it ever got encrypted by Tor. This meant that Tor’s security was a lie, a facade since all it really did was paint a target on your back. In class, I’ve often argued that having something to hide doesn’t always mean having something bad to hide. However, if you had something extremely wrong to hide then you’d take extreme measures to hide it. That was what the US government realised with Tor. Only if you had something bad to hide would you ever consider using Tor to hide? Through this simple psychological trick, the US government had just outplayed the guilty by creating a common hiding spot that it could keep tabs on at all times. Once Robert Ulbricht and Silk Road had been busted, many other clone sites got busted with it, allowing for 76 individuals to be prosecuted and ‘nearly three hundred child victims from around the world rescued from their abusers’. The Illusion of Tor’s security ended up being exactly what caused its downfall and due to the outreach of Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, Tor would always be susceptible to surveillance from the exact companies and government it was supposed to protect users from.

In the end, Tor’s story ended up being a huge success for the US government, allowing for spies to get on with spying, letting foreign governments be challenged by their own citizens and identifying criminals from civilians through instinctive behaviour. Tor sets the bar for the most politically influential app and ultimately came just a few tiers too low in the hierarchy of power.


Epilogue: Disconnecting

Levine concludes with his visit to Mauthausen, Austria, a former Nazi-occupied city and the heart of Nazi Germany’s automated computer system that connected many concentration and labour camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. As Levine puts best ‘The IBM machines themselves did not kill people, but they made the Nazi death machine run faster and more efficiently.’


Concluding my time reading this book, I’d say I would never have started down this route if it hadn’t been for being suggested ‘The Great Hack’ –  a Netflix documentary on Cambridge Analytica who manipulated the votes of both the 2016 US Presidential election and Brexit through social media and data analysis. ‘The Great Hack’ was the first to open my eyes to the reality that we’d all let ourselves get absorbed into the world of technology without ever taking a step back to look at it all. My friends often find I’m the hardest to contact, due in large part to me being one of few that can even stop the resist of social media. Yet, that still hasn’t stopped me from being absorbed into a world of technology and I often find if I pick up my phone, I often waste up to hours of time staring at my screen, completely oblivious to where my data goes. Surveillance Valley has really brought light to such a quiet topic, which has been seemingly forgotten with time. Hopefully, by reading this blog and my reviews of the main narratives of the book, you’ve come to at least consider the reality that you’re being surveilled constantly for data even when the lights are off and where the data goes.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!