After a long term of teaching and research, it’s been great to get a bit of space to do some reading and writing. The past few months have been very busy, though I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to get involved in a lot of different types of work. Teaching has been great fun, and I’ve been enjoying both my general tutoring work (which has been a useful opportunity to brush up on my criminological theory) and planning and leading a seminar on cybercrime for our Global Crime course.

Research continues to go well – I’m now up to over 20 interviews, roughly half with core Tor Project contributors and half with members of the broader community. I’m hoping now to get a bit of a break before attending the Chaos Communiations Congress (34C3) in December. I submitted a talk for the programme, intending to feed some of my initial findings back to the Tor community, however this wasn’t accepted. That said, I’m still very much looking forward to attending, and am considering putting together a self-organised session to do this. My plans for the rest of the research are to make some final approaches before CCC and aim to talk to some more Tor Project contributors and members of the Tor community there if possible. After CCC, I hope to conduct any final interviews I’m able to arrange with the Tor community, then move on to a few more interviews with other groups to round things off – namely, ISPs and law enforcement personnel. I’m also hoping to use this time to carry out analysis of design documents and any other online materials that I’m able to use (having hopefully had a chance to discuss how to do this appropriately and ethically with members of the Tor Project at or after CCC).

Although the data I am gathering in my research is all being presented anonymously, and with care to make sure that any quotes or analysis does not identify participants, one of my participants asked me recently if he could post the transcript of our email interview on his blog. These questions are generally reflective of what I’ve been asking people in the interviews, and although I won’t be referring to any participants by name in the research outputs, if you want to see what the interviews have been looking like, then the interview can be found on Damian’s blog here.

 

 

 

 

 

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Just back to work after a great holiday at home in Edinburgh. Managed to avoid Fringe stuff (apart from the crowds!), did some sketching around the city with my partner (who’s a criminology lecturer at Napier) and generally relaxed and caught up on sleep. I also managed to catch up on some reading – I’ve been reading Trouble on Triton by Samuel Delany and The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, with Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack and Angela Davis’ Women, Race and Class as my current academic books I’m working through. By way of a “completely mindless escape from the PhD” outlet, I’ve also been playing some Elite Dangerous on the Xbox.

Now that the summer school teaching has finished for the year (which was great fun, apart from the marking), I’ve been mostly working on research assistant work and helping out with some work on the SCCJR website. I’m keeping my hand in with programming on the side by doing little projects, but it’s not enough to really feel satisfying. I do find it interesting going back to this sort of programming, which I did more of in my Chemistry undergrad – it’s very different to the statistical programming I’m more used to from my previous work as a statistician (which was mostly statistical/economic analysis and database stuff in SAS and R).

PhD work is going really well – after a minor drought, I’m managing to get more interviews again. I’m now up to 15, with two more pencilled in. This means I’m also faced with a pile of transcription work – while email interviews tend to be less in-depth and exploratory, they have the big advantage of transcribing themselves! As ever, though, people have been extremely generous with their time and I’ve been really enjoying the interviews. Some really interesting questions have been coming out – in particular around the idea of maintenance and expansion. As these technologies move away from proof-of-concept or tools for expert users and become large infrastructures on which people actually depend, the types and patterns of work, working practices, and the organisational structures and cultures involved change as well. It’s a shame that so little research within criminology (even of the critical variety) that tackles online spaces gives any thought to infrastructure, or to the processes by which these technologies are crafted and shaped – this is to my mind where a lot of the key questions are to be found.

I’m hoping to write up an actual summary of my findings so far soon (once I’ve got out from under the transcription mountain). The next steps for me fieldwork-wise are to continue making email approaches to people – I’m also hoping to attend CCC again in December, where I’ll hopefully have a chance to speak to more Tor people in person about my research. I’d quite like to carry out some observation on the Tor IRC channels, but I would like to get to know more people in the community and build up more trust first – I don’t want people to feel I’m acting disingenuously, or to disrupt what is one of the Tor Project’s main working/communication platforms. I’d also like to ask at some point about the possiblity of writing a bit in my research about the public mailing list discussions and the trac archives, though this could prove tricky in terms of consent and anonymity. It may well be the case that I’m not able to find a satisfactory solution for this, in which case I’ll just focus on the interviews and publicly available documents. If it were posssible to analyse and discuss these in an ethical way then I think this would add a lot to the research (my initial thoughts were to refer to discussions anonymously and use paraphrasing, and to seek direct permission from contributors where actual quotes were sought).

 

Just a general update and some thoughts on the research so far and on my interviews. I’m busy at the moment with a number of bits of work – some research assistant stuff for my supervisor, a summer school I’m teaching at and some work for the SCCJR around their website – but still making as much time as I can for the PhD research, and I’ve conducted a number of interviews in the last few weeks. Had a great time at the SCCJR residential and saw some brilliant presentations.

The fieldwork interviews – the strange experience of having an in-depth conversation in full “listening mode” for 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours with a complete stranger – have been the part of the research I’ve enjoyed the most so far. In the interviews I’ve generally been focusing on four main topics:

  • Identity and community – how people got started with the project, how they describe themselves, their sense of a broader Tor community and what motivates them to contribute to Tor.
  • Design and organisation – what is actually involved in working with Tor (either in the project or in the community), how people make decisions about the technology, how people debate and decide on different ways of doing things, the importance of open source values, how the organisation has changed over time and what day-to-day challenges they face in their work.
  • Labels and perceptions – people’s views on how Tor is perceived by those inside and outside the project, how they think law enforcement, the media and politicians view the technology, how they deal with the friction that Tor faces from others (be that abuse complaints from ISPs or dealings with law enforcement) and their perspectives on the different things Tor is used for and the appropriateness of different ways of governing the network and the organisation
  • Internet freedom and the future – what people think the main challenges facing the project are, what they’re excited about, what they’re worried about and whether they feel pessimistic or optimistic about the future of internet freedom.

I tend to focus on different bits of this with different interviewees – for example, sometimes there will be a specific thing I’m interested in asking more about, like the reasons behind a particular decision or change, and sometimes I’m more interested in talking generally about the topics and probing further where interesting things come up. In an interview with a relay operator I might be more interested in the day-to-day experience of running a relay or how they deal with ISP abuse complaints, while for a core member of the project I might ask more about how design decisions are made or the challenges of working with such a geographically dispersed group of people. I also try to be careful to be respectful, sensitive and reflexive when interviewing – although none of these topics are necessarily sensitive in themselves, I make the effort throughout the conversation to judge whether there are topics that people might not want to talk about and avoid these where possible.

All in all, I’ve found the interviews I’ve conducted so far really useful – people have been very insightful and generous and the project is coming along well as far as I can tell. I think that some people are a bit skeptical due to my identity as a criminologist. This is understandable – in the US especially, criminology is still strongly associated with “state science” and administrative or forensic research on behalf of law enforcement authorities. This is very much not the tradition I’m drawing from – in the UK (and parts of the US) there is a strong tradition of more critical, activist criminology which views crime as socially constructed – but I can certainly understand why people might be worried about my motivations for the research. I think that when I was engaged in LGBT rights activism I would have felt very much the same way if approached by a criminological researcher. Still, this just means that it’s even more important that I approach the research in an open and honest way.

The research continues! The people to whom I’m speaking are continuing to be very generous and helpful, and there’s a lot of interesting data coming out. In particular, it’s really interesting to get a sense of how the Tor Project has changed over the years, and the different benefits and challenges that the trend towards more formal and organised structures have brought. It seems to be a really exciting time for Tor, with a lot of new technological developments (such as Next Generation Onion Services), various changes within the organisation and the increasing prominence of surveillance issues in public discourse. This, however, is against a background of troubling political rhetoric around encryption – the escalation of calls for backdoors in encrypted software and crackdowns by high-profile politicians (including the UK Prime Minister) in recent weeks reflect increasingly securitised and authoritarian discourse around questions of how to deal with crime online.

A common theme among the people I’ve interviewed is the idea that “Tor is a tool” – that you can’t blame infrastructure and technology for the uses to which it is put. I personally agree with this argument, and I think that this raises really interesting questions about how and why technologies get labelled as criminal or deviant. As one might imagine, Becker’s Outsiders study on how drug use and users becomes labelled as deviant is likely to be of particular relevance.

I’m finding that people talk about this in two ways. Firstly in terms of the the public image of a technology, which seems to be rooted in the groups of users it becomes associated with, the uses people associate with it and the way it is discussed by advocates, the media, politicians and the general public. This is linked to, but not “determined” by the second component – the material properties of the object, which reflect design decisions made by its creators, discussions about what the “intended use” or “point” of the technology is, and the “possibility space” of different uses it can have. As the Tor network is at its heart communication infrastructure it has a massive range of possible uses – in effect it exists to facilitate action rather than to act itself –  and as such it has more in common with a road network or the internet itself than with a tool designed for a given set of uses.

The capacities that Tor provides its users for unsurveilled communication operate in no more deterministic a way than the capacities provided by the internet itself for mass networked communication, linking people up across the world, or indeed for mass surveillance. People exist in complex relationships with technologies, both shaping and being shaped by them, and the material properties of technologies don’t operate in deterministic ways when they encounter the social world. The frustration that the Tor community experience when their network is labelled as criminal or deviant is, therefore, very understandable – it is no more so than the internet itself. How people try to influence the “meaning” of the technology (both in terms of how it is perceived and in terms of its material properties) is particularly interesting, and I hope that through further interviews I can continue to explore how people’s understanding of these issues, and their personal values and hopes for the technology, shape the design, maintenance and operation of the different components of the Tor network.

Just a quick update on my fieldwork progress – after a successful First Year Panel, I’ve made a start interviewing some people in the Tor community. Everyone I’ve spoken to has been very generous with their time and really helpful – I’ve found it really interesting so far. To everyone that I’ve interviewed so far – thanks so much!

I’m hoping to spend the rest of the summer getting in touch with more people and carrying out some more interviews. In terms of findings it’s early days yet, but there are some really interesting themes coming out. I’m teaching a summer school course in sociology and doing some other bits and pieces of work over the next month or so, but I’m hoping to get some time to analyse and write up my initial findings when I get a chance.

This came out around December last year, but I’m reposting it here in any case – Shane Horgan and I wrote a short article for Scottish Justice Matters on cybercrime (link). It includes an awful pun, but don’t let that put you off. It was quite interesting to write collaboratively, and for a joint policy/academic audience, but I really enjoyed working with Shane on this and hope we can work on something again in the future!

 

Some good news – having finished the pilot project and written it up for my First Year Panel, I’ve now passed my board and am good to begin my main research. I’ll be uploading a summary of my pilot findings here soon. I’ve arrived at what I think are a good set of research questions, which I’ll post here (they will likely be refined across the course of the research, but I think they’re a good base to work from):

  1. “Which are the main groups of actors that organise Tor and what are the organising practices, concepts and relationships that enable the project to flourish?”
  • What organisation and interest groupings are present, how do different groups within the project interact and how does this affect the functioning of the project? How are decisions about Tor software development made and negotiated?
  • What are the motivations of the people who contribute to the project, and how do they see the work they do, and their own identity as project contributors?
  1. “In what ways are the interests, experiences and views on crime, privacy and surveillance of the people who develop Tor reflected in work done, decisions about technology development and implementation, and governance of the project?
  • How do contributors manage or mitigate the potential harms which could arise from use of their software? What challenges do they face Internally and externally, ow are these challenges and potential effects debated, understood and translated into the technology by contributors?
  • What role do constructions of crime, privacy, state power and surveillance play in shaping how the organisation responds to these changes, and in shaping the technology itself?
  1. How do activists, Hidden Services providers and members of law enforcement agencies perceive these issues, and the governance and activities of Tor, and how do they appear to be attempting to influence outcomes and direction.
  1. Do STS frameworks provide useful insights in developing criminological theories of the Internet? How could a greater focus on the social shaping of technology deepen understanding of crime in high-technology societies?

I’ve also made a poster for the SCCJR research poster competition, attached here (with apologies to the Designers’ Republic).picture1

Since quitting my job, it’s been really great having more time to read and devote time to other academic work – I’ve been mostly reading up on symbolic interactionism, which I think could be useful in working the Science and Technology Studies frame into a criminological context. I’ve also been doing a lot of teaching at the University, which I’m really enjoying – the first years are all proving very engaged and critical, drawing links between the tutorials (which are covering ideas of legitimacy in the criminal justice system) and contemporary issues, events and politics with very little or no prompting.

My next steps for the research are to begin speaking to members of the Tor Project about my research, arrange interviews where possible and begin exploring these research questions. I’m heading to the Internet Freedom Festival in Valencia next week to attend talks, meet other academics researching internet freedom technologies and speak to people involved in the Tor community if possible.