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Tor struggles for survival as coronavirus privacy concerns rise

Revelations that the Tor Project had to lay off a third of its staff this week sent shock waves through the privacy community. The news came after the nonprofit organization was forced to downsize due to the economic impact caused by the global coronavirus pandemic.

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Tor’s Onion browser is considered by privacy advocates to be an essential service for maintaining privacy and anonymity online. The free browser is a vital utility for at-risk individuals including journalists, human rights campaigners, lawyers, protesters, and political dissidents, to name a few.

The recent announcement came from Tor’s blog. The dispiriting post explained that unfortunately staff were being laid off due to a sudden acute decrease in funding.

Tor, like much of the world, has been caught up in the COVID-19 crisis. Like many other nonprofits and small businesses, the crisis has hit us hard, and we have had to make some difficult decisions. We had to let go of 13 great people who helped make Tor available to millions of people around the world.

Isabela Bagueros, Tor Project Executive Director

Contact tracing's impact on privacy might not be temporary

For privacy advocates living the world over, Tor’s sudden need to downsize can be considered a cause for concern. Since the pandemic started, governments worldwide have passed emergency regulations that allow for increased tracking and surveillance. And, while the need to tackle COVID-19 is indubitable, it is also critical to consider how new tracking measures may affect citizens' future privacy.

Fortunately, several governments are imposing temporary measures with sunset clauses. This is acceptable, because it ensures that any increased surveillance is measured, appropriate, and limited in its nature. However, not every country is imposing these important sunset clauses into their emergency measures - which is leading to concern from groups like Privacy International, Digital Rights Watch, Fight For the Future, and from individuals like Edward Snowden.

The world won't be the same after this crisis, and the need for privacy and secure access to information will become more urgent.

Isabela Bagueros, Tor Project Executive Director

Isabela's warning is a sentiment echoed by leading privacy organizations worldwide, which agree that a potential for grave privacy-crumbling repercussions exists.

On the one hand, reasonable and measured responses to help combat the spread of COVID-19 are entirely necessary. On the other, it is essential for governments to be held accountable, for privacy to be maintained, for human rights to be respected, and for essential privacy services like Tor to remain available to people who require them - both during and following the pandemic.

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After all, the loss of any vital privacy services because of the pandemic would signal a huge loss for citizens everywhere, eliminating their ability to communicate and protest against oppression, discrimination, prejudice, and totalitarianism around the globe. 

For Tor, which relies on donations to perform upkeep on its platform, the economic impact of the pandemic is already being felt. The hardship caused by the pandemic has led to a drop in the number and size of donations. Thankfully, however, the firm is confident that it will be able to keep providing its services to users with its remaining team members.

We are terribly sad to lose such valuable teammates, and we want to let all our users and supporters know that Tor will continue to provide privacy, security, and censorship circumvention services to anyone who needs them.

Isabela Bagueros, Tor Project Executive Director

Help support Tor today

The services provided by Tor continue to be important to huge numbers of people located around the world. And, for Tor to continue developing and maintaining its servers and software - including the Tor Browser Bundle and the Tor anonymity network - it will continue to require donations from citizens.

We understand that COVID-19 is causing huge amounts of hardship across the board, and that it's hard to think about donating during such a crisis. However, if privacy is something you are passionate about and you are in the fortunate position to be able to donate something, Tor is a worthy cause that will benefit from even a small donation.

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Written by: Ray Walsh

Digital privacy expert with 5 years experience testing and reviewing VPNs. He's been quoted in The Express, The Times, The Washington Post, The Register, CNET & many more. 

1 Comment

Wannabe techguy
on April 24, 2020
"On the one hand, reasonable and measured responses to help combat the spread of COVID-19 are entirely necessary." Such as? I don't trust any governments AT ALL!!

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