Quite a big update – I’m currently working part-time for Transport Scotland as a statistician (I manage the transport elements of the Scottish Household Survey), which gives an interesting perspectives on issues around open data, ethical research and anonymity. I am, however, ending this work in late January to focus on my PhD research – I’m finding working on both quite tiring as it is currently, and from an ethical perspective I think that managing these two identities could become difficult, given the nature of my research, the people to whom I want to speak and the reflexive, open and respectful approach I intend to take. I’m really looking forward to getting more time to read and focus on my research (and more time to relax as well)!
I’ve just recently finished running a small pilot study in advance of my First Year Panel, in order to gather some initial data, begin exploring and refining my research questions and make my first approaches to the Tor community. First off (if anyone is reading this), many thanks to all those who got in touch and agreed to speak to me! I conducted 4 interviews in the end – even with this fairly small sample of respondents I managed to hear from some quite diverse and interesting perspectives, work through a lot of the documents on the main Tor website and get a lot of helpful feedback on the project. A number of other people talked to me and offered very helpful suggestions on the research, particularly Nathalie Marechal, who gave me a lot of useful comments – many thanks Nathalie!
I spoke to three exit relay operators and a developer working on the project as a volunteer. The respondents were from Scotland, Germany and Russia and I spoke to them under the agreement that their contributions would be anonymous (though some of them were happy for me to use their names in the research write-up).
My interviews focused on two main topics – firstly exploring the respondents’ attitudes to questions around the relationships between state and corporate surveillance, personal privacy and crime, and secondly asking more detailed technical questions around what is involved in working on the project, how their opinions and values influence the work they do and how they see the technological and political elements of the project evolving over the next few years. Despite coming from very different political backgrounds, and with different types and degrees of involvement with the project, there were some striking similarities in the accounts and the interviews opened up several interesting further lines of enquiry. In particular, a number of the participants were initially (understandably) sceptical due to my identification as a criminologist – I think people have quite varied impressions about this designation, with many people interpreting it as “crime science” or at the very least, research which seeks to “fight crime”, or which assumes state agencies as the eventual audience for the findings. The particular type of criminological research I want to undertake, however, takes a very different approach, informed both by the critical tradition of criminology at Edinburgh University as well as my own background in activism. I think a broader and more critical perspective, which includes looking harms caused by states and other powerful actors is vital to criminological research, especially that which touches on surveillance (and especially in the current climate). I found that speaking a bit more to the participants about my research and what I was interested in helped a lot in reassuring them that I wasn’t trying to contribute to a “moral panic” around Tor and the DarkNet – understandably, frustration around media and academic depictions of Tor was a common theme in the interviews, and it was clear that researchers or journalists barrelling in without “doing their homework” were not helping matters.
I’m now engaged in writing up this pilot study and preparing for my First Year Panel in January, after which I’m hoping to start my main research project. I’m feeling pretty good about it all and really excited to get started – although the project has changed a lot in the last year (and even the last few months), I’m really pleased with the direction in which it’s going. I’ll try to write some more here about the findings as I go.