It's time for Tor activists to stop acting like the spies they claim to hate
Apparently I have to have time for this.
I don't have time for this, you understand. What with Uber executives threatening my business partner and Pando being credited for opening up a new legal flank in the Techtopus anti-wage-fixing lawsuit (more on that soon), and a new issue of PandoQuarterly about to go to press... what with all of that, I really don't have time to respond to an increasingly bizarre attempt by some senior Tor developers to undermine our reporting on their funding sources by trying to smear Pando reporters as trolls and bullies.
And yet apparently I have to have time for that. So I'll keep this as brief as possible.
For the past few months, Pando writer Yasha Levine has been reporting on how several senior developers of the anonymizing service Tor are, or have been, on the payroll of the US government. This, Yasha has argued, is a relevant conflict of interest for developers promoting a technology that, in part, claims to help users avoid the attention of that same US government.
Following Yasha's initial report, some Tor supporters argued that Tor's connection with the government was already common knowledge and so not worth reporting on. We've heard that argument before. Others insisted the connection was irrelevant as it couldn't affect the maths underlying Tor's encryption. That's a perfectly reasonable position to take, and it's one that deserves thorough debate, here on Pando and elsewhere.
Unfortunately, as Yasha later reported, a small but highly aggressive group of high profile Tor advocates, including activist Jacob Appelbaum and the Intercept's Micah Lee apparently decided that a better way to respond to Pando's reporting was to attack Pando's and Yasha's credibility through a seemingly orchestrated smear campaign.
As ZDNet reported: "[I]nstead of deconstructing Levine's argument, Tor's supporters have merely attacked him and his motives — at least one even accusing him of working for the CIA."
That particular smear came in early November when a freelance journalist and "radical open web advocate" called Harry Halpin, writing on the LA Review of Books, casually dropped into a book review the fact that Yasha's reporting had been funded by the CIA. The only problem with that assertion: It was, and is, a total lie.
By way of explanation, Halpin argued that Greylock partners, one of Pando's investors, had received money from In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the CIA. Perhaps some of that money might have made its way to Pando? Unfortunately, that too is a total lie: As far as I or anyone else examining the claim has been able to determine Greylock has not received any money whatsoever from the CIA. Even if they had done, there's no earthly reason it would have ended up at Pando, and certainly no way it would have directly funded Yasha's reporting.
It was only after I wrote to the editor of the LARB, pointing out the fact that his publication was guilty of the most egregious defamation against Yasha, and copying our attorney (the wonderful Roger Myers, who previously defended Wikileaks), that the magazine issued a mealy-mouthed retraction and correction, claiming that the CIA line had been intended as a joke.
Ho ho ho.
With that avenue closed off, the smear campaign moved to Twitter and refocussed on Yasha's personal character and that of other Pando reporters who didn't even work on the Tor story. I largely ignored the fight -- it was, after all, designed to distract us -- but occasionally something would bubble up when I was @-replied on a Tweet about how Yasha is a CIA-funded child rapist, or suchlike. "These are seriously the people building Tor?" I asked myself more than once.
The aim of the Twitter attacks seemed to be to discourage anyone for asking awkward questions about Tor lest they too be targeted:
Then, last week things got just plain weird. On 3rd December the Guardian published a column, written by freelancer Tom Fox-Brewster, celebrating Tor developer Andrea Shepard for outing ("doxing") a Twitter user who had allegedly sent her harassing messages after she was named in Yasha's reporting. The piece contained the following claim:
Pando journalists and the followers have pestered [Tor activist] Andrea Shepard and other Tor advocates over their funding sources; at other times, they suggested they kill themselves.
"Pando journalist Yasha Levine has been cultivating [the twitter user] as well as several others as part of a harassment campaign against us, and the larger audience has made him considerably more influential and vicious." What on earth?
I had to check twice that I was really reading the Guardian and not a parody site. For one thing, I had no idea who Andrea Shepard is, despite the Guardian claiming that Pando had apparently threatened her life. For another, there was no evidence cited in the piece to support any claim that Pando had been involved in harassing Shepard or anyone else in the Tor community, or that we had any hand in "cultivating" Shepard's alleged harasser.
Searching Twitter, the first interaction I could find involving her and anyone at Pando was when Shepard tweeted the following:
Most alarmingly of all, the Guardian hadn't asked me, Yasha or anyone else at Pando for comment before accusing us of cyberbullying.
The backstory came clear only after I spoke to the Guardian editor responsible for the piece, who characterized its publication as "a fuck up." Simply put, the editor hadn't read the piece before it was published and the first she'd known about its contents was when I emailed to ask what the hell was going on. The only explanation she could offer is that Fox-Brewster is a regular freelance contributor and generally speaking his work had been good so she'd green-lit the piece on the basis of a short pitch. (Given that work includes a glowing profile of the guy who once ran Doxbin and who proudly attacked a lawyer for daring to criticize revenge porn we'll have to disagree on the definition of "good").
The piece was promptly edited to remove any claim of Pando involvement in Shepard's harassment. Later it was updated again to include a comment from me and to note that many Tor users had distanced themselves from Shepard's actions, including former NSA whistleblower, Thomas Drake.
But some have distanced themselves from supporting Shepard’s actions, even one of the apparent victims, Thomas Drake, a former NSA executive and whistleblower. Drake said he was a First Amendment and free speech “absolutist” when it was suggested that he’d backed the “doxing” (a hacker term for de-anonmyising) of the troll.If the inclusion of Drake amongst the other victims of Pando's alleged harassment campaign is odd, downright bizarre is the fact that Shepard also named famed Internet troll and white supremacist, Weev.
The full target list I've exposed here has been myself, Runa Sandvik, Asher Wolf, Jillian York, Jacob Appelbaum, Molly Crabapple, @bcrypt, @caulkthewagon, @legind, Matthew D. Green, Thomas Drake, Peter Kofod, Sarah Jeong, @CassandraRules, @OaklandElle, Jeremy Scahill, and weev.Weev! A victim of trolling!
Now, I want to be very clear that I have no reason to believe that Shepard is lying, or even exaggerating, when she says she feels harassed on Twitter by some Tor critics. I've always taken the view that if someone believes behavior constitutes harassment then it's not for me to dispute that claim. Everyone's barrier for feeling harassed is different, and harassment can take many forms, visible and invisible -- all of which should be condemned.
As for campaigners for Internet anonymity celebrating the "doxing" of a critic: I'll leave that to the gods of irony to judge. It's certainly worth noting that both Shepard...
Also, I already knew you were a pharmacist, and now you just outed your employer. Should have used Tor, fucko....and Fox-Brewster...
Whatever the moral dilemmas at play here, the ultimate irony remains: [He] would have most likely kept his identity secret if he’d used Tor....have sneered at the doxing target that he should have used Tor to hide his identity, almost in the manner of an infomercial.
Here's what I do know for sure: Whatever harassment Shepard may have suffered as a result of her involvement of Tor, none of that harassment has been orchestrated by or condoned by Pando. None. Zero.
By contrast, on two occasions, freelance journalists who are close to the Tor community have been able to plant provably false claims in established media outlets, designed to smear Yasha's, and Pando's, reporting on Tor. On both of those occasions I've had to contact the editors involved to have the fabrications corrected. But on both of those occasions the damage was already done: Little seeds of doubt had been planted that maybe, just maybe, Pando shouldn't be trusted. On Twitter the yelling and screaming continues, with those defending Tor locked in battle with an equally strident group of critics, few of whom seem to be interested in debating the actual substance of Pando's reporting.
There is a very clear irony in activists like the Intercept's Micah Lee being involved in a campaign to smear Pando as 'GamerHate'-style "psycho trolls" and to warn off anyone from writing for us:
Back in February, Lee's publication exposed "How covert [government] agents infiltrate the Internet to manipulate, deceive, and destroy reputations." The report included slides from Britain's JTRIG spy group which show how such a smear might work:
As the Intercept's Glenn Greenwald explained:
Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable.Sound familiar?
Yesterday, technology journalist and Tor supporter, Quinn Norton wrote a powerful guest post here on Pando, urging the Tor community to dial down the abusive rhetoric and focus instead on what she believes are important technical misunderstandings in Pando's reporting.
The computer security and net freedom community have come up in the abusive environment of contemporary social media, and this has created a culture of constant combat and defensiveness. They take criticism with flame throwers on full throttle. But I believe all sides of this debate can be settled through clearer, gentler, and more candid communication.I couldn't agree more. I enjoy a Twitter fight as much as the next guy, and I understand the impulse to circle the wagons when journalists attack something you think is too important to fail. As Norton put it:
It’s important too explain why people have been so incoherently angry as Tor has been criticized. There’s a genuine fear that this debate, or rather the miscommunication around it, puts people at risk. Most of the places people are using Tor their adversaries are not the US Government. They’re using it not only to communicate but to sidestep censorship. Tor is literally a lifeline to the world for people, some of whom are my colleagues, and some my friends.But by ignoring the substance of Pando's reporting and instead using fake planted media stories and ad hominem attacks on Twitter to try to discredit our reporters, the Tor community is doing itself a huge disservice, not to mention becoming what it claims to hate.
I commissioned Norton's rebuttal to Yasha to demonstrate that we're ready, willing and able to have a rational debate about how much Tor's government funding affects the security of its users. No one at Pando is afraid of criticism. We're not even scared to admit when we're wrong.
But, as Yasha's editor, and as someone who just watched my business partner be threatened by a goon working for a $40bn Silicon Valley corporation, what I absolutely can't, and won't, tolerate is any more smears and lies designed to distract us from reporting the truth, about Tor, Uber or anyone else.
I don't care if you're a Tor supporter who's thinking of planting the next false story in the Guardian, or a Pando reader who thinks they're doing us a favor by insulting Tor developers, the smears and harassment need to stop, now. We all have more important things to focus on.
Update: The Intercept's Micah Lee has published a new post in which he repeats the claim that Pando was responsible for a harassment campaign against Tor developers. When I asked him on Twitter if he really believes that claim, he responded:
He then refused to answer any more questions about the claims made in his post:
Shortly afterwards he acknowledged to a follower that he had written the post specifically to make me "lose [my] shit"....
It must be hugely reassuring for those who trust Tor with their life to know that the most prominent members of its community proudly boast of trolling journalists who are trying to understand their funding.
"Reduced" to hobos?