Building Bridges in Times of War

With support from OTF’s Rapid Response Fund, the Tor Project provides continued access to the open internet in the face of increased censorship surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Thu, 2023-02-16 15:34
Tor Russia

Since its inception in the mid-1990s at the U.S. Naval Research Lab, the Tor Project and its privacy-enhancing “onion routing” have been many things to many people – for as online threats to human rights and freedom have evolved, so too has Tor. Following its establishment as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2006, the organization and its family of activists moved beyond working solely to combat surveillance and began to develop bridges to help users circumvent censorship designed to prevent them from accessing the Tor network and the open internet. By 2010, efforts to increase everyday user access to the open internet via the Tor Browser had borne significant fruit – with the tool serving as an essential resource during the pro-democracy Arab Spring uprisings. In turn, by the time OTF started providing support to Tor in 2013, the organization had become a leader in the ongoing struggle to grant all people access to an open internet, privacy, and truth in the face of increasing government censorship and surveillance.

Today the Tor Project uses thousands of volunteer-run relays to support millions of daily users, making it one of the most relied upon Internet freedom tools in the world. People can use Tor’s multi-layered encryption to block trackers, defend against surveillance, resist fingerprinting, and browse an uncensored internet. The organization’s large-scale success is predicated, in significant part, on Tor’s remarkable ability to adapt and respond to the immediate needs of those in its community. Time and again, when faced with a crisis, the organization’s team and volunteer network has leapt into action to preserve access to Tor’s tools which serve as an information lifeline for dissidents and other at-risk individuals living in closed or repressed regimes. Below, we take a look at how that lifeline was put in danger in the months leading up to and following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and how Tor’s community – with timely support from OTF’s Rapid Response Fund – united to help preserve access to the open internet for those living under Kremlin rule.

The Rapid Response Fund

Over the past decade, the bulk of OTF’s support for the Tor Project has come from the Internet Freedom Fund (IFF), OTF’s primary way to support projects and people working on open and accessible technology-focused projects that promote human rights, Internet freedom, and open societies. Prior IFF funding assisted with Tor’s general development and implementation of defenses against online profiling and attacks, and also worked to reinforce the resiliency, usability, and overall aesthetics of the Tor Browser. Yet applications to the IFF and its multi-stage review process take time to assess and award – a luxury that did not exist for the Tor users in Russia who were quickly losing access to the open internet at the end of 2021.

Fortunately, in cases of digital emergencies, OTF also has the Rapid Response Fund (RRF), which aims to resolve threats in a timely and comprehensive manner for individuals, communities, and organizations whose free expression has recently been repressed. Unlike the IFF and other OTF-based funding opportunities, RRF applications are reviewed as quickly as possible – with every effort being made to issue a decision within five days of submission. For successful applications, an immediate turnaround is necessitated by the dire digital crisis being faced by members of OTF’s community. Where such urgent assistance is the only option, RRF grant awards offer two types of support: (1) technological services from trusted service partners, and (2) direct financial support for needs that cannot be fulfilled by those partners. To date, OTF has supported over 100 rapid response interventions to address digital emergencies in more than 40 countries, including China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Russia, Syria, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Support has also been surged to Hong Kong to assist with increasing censorship and surveillance threats. All payments always conform with local laws, regulations, ethics, and U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control restrictions and requirements.

At root, the RRF exemplifies OTF’s commitment to a community-first approach – recognizing there are many times when help cannot wait if it is indeed to help. Such was the case in December 2021 when Tor’s user support team began receiving emails from people in Russia saying that they could no longer access the Tor Project website.

Russia Expands Domestic Censorship

Russian users accounted for 15% of Tor’s total daily usage in 2021 (we know this because alongside its emphasis on privacy, Tor is also committed to transparency – making usage data available on Tor Metrics without compromising user identity). That meant if Tor was in fact blocked in Russia – as the initial emails were indicating – then more than 300,000 Russians would have no way to access uncensored news and information. The issue was further compounded by the fact that Roskomnadzor (the Russian federal agency in charge of monitoring and censoring Russia media and the internet) had already begun ordering Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block VPN services within the country. With no VPN access or Tor-based browsing option, individuals living within Russia would have no windows through which to view the wider world and independent news. The Russian government was, in short, tightening its control over domestic access to uncensored information.

Unaware of any Tor-related censorship issues in the country prior to receiving the handful of emails on December 1st, Tor’s small user support team quickly worked to determine if Tor really was being blocked in Russia. Their first step was to check OONI, another OTF-supported partner, to assess the blockage status. Test results revealed a few anomalies, but no official government confirmation of a censoring event or outage. And interestingly, the anomalies only applied to certain ISPs – Tor was not being blocked across the majority of Russia. Unsure of whether there was an actual blockage in place, or whether perhaps just a cable had gone down, the user support team reported what limited information they had to Tor’s anti-censorship team and went forward assisting with other user issues.

Tor’s Immediate Cross-Team Response

Within three days, everything changed. Hundreds of emails from across Russia came pouring in – all reporting Tor’s blockage and asking for help. The user support team was swamped. How could just two people – neither of whom spoke Russian – handle this influx of requests? It simply wouldn’t be possible to review, translate, and respond to each new ticket in an individualized and timely manner. Pivoting quickly into triage mode, the team realized they needed to create a template to help Russian users circumvent the censorship at issue. Yet in order to do so, they first needed to understand what ISPs were blocking Tor and how they were doing it.

Tor’s anti-censorship team stepped in to investigate these questions, and soon – aided by critical feedback from members of the Russian community – they were able to prepare a user guide for how to circumvent the censorship techniques at play. The guide, available here, has since become the most accessed item on the Tor Forum with over 190,000 views and counting. At the same time, Tor’s community team was able to leverage an ongoing “run a bridge” campaign to great success (volunteer-provided bridges allow users to “hop” over censorship efforts that would otherwise block their access to the Tor network). With an initial target of 200 new bridges, the community team ended up with over 1,000 new bridges provided by eager volunteers over the course of the campaign. Tor’s community members were clearly committed to helping keep open the option of access to an unrestricted internet in Russia.

Yet despite this impressive degree of early success, it was obvious that the Tor team – even with its new template and user guide – couldn’t hope to keep pace with the rising level of need as the censorship techniques continued to expand and evolve across Russia. Tor’s user support team needed to cover all areas of the world – not just this single issue, as did the anti-censorship team which was turning its attention to occurrences in China. There were simply too many tickets to close, with hundreds more being added each day. If there was ever a situation that qualified as a digital emergency, this was it.

RRF Grant Enables New Builds and Faster Turnaround Times for User Support

Only a fund like the RRF could provide the type of support Tor needed on the timeline by which Tor users in Russia needed to receive it. Within days of applying, Tor was granted the resources required to meet the skyrocketing demand for Russian-related services, including a Russian-speaking translator for user support and assistance with in-country censorship detection and circumvention. This allowed Tor’s team to not only provide support over the holidays and draw down the outstanding pile of unresolved user support tickets, but to also enter a proactive phase in which the organization was able to better understand how Tor bridges were being blocked in the country so that when a bridge was subsequently blocked, a new one could be rotated in to maintain user access to the Tor network.

The RRF-supported project ran from December 2021 to April 2022. Across the five-month period, RRF resources provided Tor with user support, translation and localization services, research, and new technology builds. Aid from the RRF grant helped enable Tor’s cross-team response to understand the type of censorship they were facing – and then build out new technology to address the threat. And on the user support front, the Tor Applications team was able to develop a Telegram bot that automated the process of responding to user messages with bridge addresses. With help from a Russian speaker, the team launched a Tor support channel on Telegram – testing to see if there was a need for this type of service and whether people would indeed use it. Sure enough, Tor users began reaching out en masse via the messaging service and asking for help with the censorship issue. Potential new users reached out too – inquiring about how and why to use Tor. To better deal with the censorship at issue, multiple Telegram channels were ultimately created over the course of the project. The first automatically shared the link for a bridge, while the second was used to provide follow-up help when the initial bridge didn’t work.

Mindful that Russian censoring agents might also be reaching out to gain access to bridges and then tear them down, Tor’s team simultaneously developed an anti-enumeration distribution method for bridge addresses that made it incredibly difficult for censors to find them and initiate a block. This ensured real users were the ones being helped – despite relying on an automated system of support that might otherwise be ripe for exploitation by censors. Domestic vantage points were also set up throughout the Spring to confirm the continued viability of bridges in the country. Whenever a bridge was determined to be down, it was removed from the distribution pool so that Russian users in need were always getting access to operational bridges. To further bolster these services and strengthen user censorship resistance during this time, a new version of the Tor Browser was also developed with upgrades to Snowflake (a circumvention system by which volunteers who have unrestricted access to the internet can install a Snowflake extension onto their browser and run a proxy for individuals across the globe who are facing censorship).

Rising to Meet Two New Waves of Censorship

With the new year came two new challenges. In January 2022, Tor’s just-hired user support team member began to receive emails asking for help from users facing censorship in Kazakhstan. In the wake of protests, the Kazakh government had imposed an internet shutdown and it was assumed that the internet was offline across the entire country. Yet an Internet freedom community member – operating on their own – conducted a scan that revealed one specific port was still in fact open in the country. When Tor’s anti-censorship team learned of this novelty, they quickly moved to create a bridge through the port – allowing access out to the open internet. Building on their recent experience in creating and disseminating a censorship circumvention template in Russia, the team then prepared a similar version for users in Kazakhstan which was used by over 500 people via email during the temporary shutdown. Though Tor’s team hadn’t originally discovered the port, they were nonetheless able to leverage this information in an immediate and impactful way – and in doing so, were reminded that there is always reason for hope – even in the most unlikely of situations.

Further challenges came again in February when Russia invaded Ukraine and amped up its efforts to control domestic access to independent information. But with these challenges also came an opportunity for Tor’s community to help those in need. The Tor team rallied public support and worked to make a difference by promoting Snowflake – encouraging those with open access to the web to download the extension and run a proxy to support internet users who were being censored by their government. Prior to Russia’s invasion, there were 16,000 Snowflake proxies in operation. That figure soon nearly doubled as members of Tor’s community realized their efforts would help those in Russia access reporting and news beyond the Kremlin’s control that would tell the truth about the war and what was happening in Ukraine. Russian Tor users played their part, too, by providing Tor’s team with insight into the type of censorship that was being encountered so that Tor could more effectively spin up their own circumvention strategies. This partnership proved essential throughout. As the war continued, open access to external information became increasingly important for those living within Russia – making the timing of Tor’s RRF-based support even more impactful. Without the automation and localization services enabled by OTF’s grant, it would have been exceedingly difficult to provide the type of help that was needed on the timeline by which it needed to be received.

Navigating the Unknown

In the face of war and rising censorship, Tor and its community of activists refused to be cowed and fought to ensure pathways to truth still existed within Russia. Still, the final months of the RRF grant remained fraught with tension. While the war raged on, essential contributors disappeared – forced to move to other countries and flee the invasion forces. In asking Tor team members to provide online assistance, organization leaders quickly realized they also had to provide offline support – as many of the people involved were experiencing real world dangers, violence, and associated mental health issues.

Throughout the five-month project, team members faced a larger degree of unknowns than ever before. They repeatedly had to pivot and do their best to navigate new problems in real time – while still paying attention to the needs of Tor users across the rest of the world. Managing so many competing interests – with literal lives on the line – was no easy task. And sanctions and similar RRF-funding restrictions further complicated who Tor could hire to provide this type of critical assistance. Yet through all the trauma and stress, Tor advocates were able to see their organization make a tangible difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people – while simultaneously building new paths forward for Tor to take in the future. Back in December 2021, few could have predicted that war would soon break out and the services for which support was being requested in Tor’s RRF application would become even more vital. But organizations operating in the Internet freedom space have come to expect the unexpected. And by being tested in this extreme way, Tor’s team and the community it serves came out stronger with new tools ready to be deployed in future crises – as well as everyday use.

Messaging Apps Take Center Stage Going Forward

Tor Project’s transition to using messaging apps and automation as the frontline of user support proved to be a game changer. The move away from email – dictated by the overwhelming influx of requests for help from Russian users – was able to be piloted prior to adoption through support from the RRF award. Tested and true, the use of bots on Telegram, Signal, and similar tools is now the primary way by which Tor provides support to its users. These new bots reflect the reality of a changing world in which there isn’t time to write and respond to individual emails – especially when the power of automation is available for real-time support and generally capable of addressing the majority of user needs.

Today, Telegram has become Tor’s main support platform. Its ease of use and accessibility (particularly when compared to email) speeds up non-automated responses as well, even allowing for simpler screenshot sharing to hone in on the type of problem being encountered by a user. Over the course of the RRF project, the entire support framework and workflow changed at Tor. In December 2021, Tor only provided support via email – a useful tool to bypass censorship and maintain privacy, but one which lacked the ability to swiftly resolve issues or communicate on a mass scale. Now, instead of waiting days for emails to go back and forth with replies, there is a far higher resolution of tickets – with the better degree of communication speeding support and strengthening issue comprehension. When a problem has been resolved, there’s also almost always a better understanding that this is the case via real-time closure and appreciation. And, in case of unexpected emergencies or one-off situations, email can still serve as a failsafe to be used when messaging isn’t available (as was the case when Telegram was blocked in Kazakhstan in January 2022).

The reality is, government censorship and surveillance aren’t going anywhere in the 21st century. But neither is Tor. In this never-ending game of circumvention chess, it’s essential to stay one move ahead – and with help from OTF and volunteers across the world, the Tor Project is doing exactly that. Learn more about the organization, download the Tor Browser, or set up Snowflake on your computer here.

About the program: Through the Rapid Response Fund (RRF), OTF aims to resolve threats in a timely and comprehensive manner for individuals, communities, and organizations whose free expression has recently been repressed. To resolve these types of digital emergencies, OTF offers both direct financial support as well as technical services from trusted partners to high-risk people and organizations, such as bloggers, cyber activists, journalists, and human rights defenders. The RRF offers two types of support to organizations, activists, journalists, and other human rights defenders facing digital attacks and emergencies of various kinds: (1) technological services from trusted service partners, and (2) direct financial support for the many needs that cannot be fulfilled by available service partners. For either form of support, the process starts with a single application (applications are accepted on a rolling basis). Note: Support is only available through the RRF when there is a clear and time-sensitive digital emergency in which an applicant is seeking short-term and urgent support. Read more about the type of support offered and application requirements here.