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Monthly Archives: June 2017

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.

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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.