On the heels of the CIA announcing its brand new Instagram account, replete with amateur artwork of some of its operatives and stories featuring Director Gina Haspel’s first ID card, the American spy agency is going to the dark web.
Today the CIA announced in a press release the launch of its very own onion site, or as the agency puts it, its “Latest Layer” online.
According to the agency, a transition to the Tor network (known for its anonymity services) was a natural move since its onion site is “secure, anonymous, untraceable—traits ever-present in CIA’s intelligence collection mission.” The site will be an exact replica of its regular website, CIA.gov, featuring things like CIA World Factbook and its online Library of declassified materials.
The CIA’s Director of Public Affairs, Brittany Bramell, said in a press release the move to Tor reflects the agency’s interest in keeping pace with modern internet habits, going so far as to offer instructions on how to download Tor to use the site.
“Our global mission demands that individuals can access us securely from anywhere. Creating an onion site is just one of many ways we’re going where people are,” she said.
While it’s not immediately clear why the notoriously clandestine and historically impenetrable spy service is now deciding to expand its online offerings to the dark web, a close reading of the release reveals an interest in classic spook pursuits: recruitment and intelligence.
Do you know something about an intelligence agency? We would love to hear from you. Using a computer or phone, you can securely contact Ben Makuch on Telegram @BenMakuch, email email@example.com or on Motherboard’s SecureDrop.
The release claims the site is a place for “applying for a job” and, most importantly, a place to more securely tip them intelligence.
“Our onion site is one of several ways individuals can contact the CIA,” it reads. “For more details, refer to the Report Information tab on either our website or onion site.”
The Tor Project, which created the Tor browser and administers it to this day, says it isn’t surprised or takes issue with the CIA using its software.
“We believe onion services are a key next step in securing the web, similar to the standardization of https as more secure configuration than http, so it that sense, it is not a surprise that the CIA would want to take advantage of the privacy and security protections that onion services provide,” said Stephanie Whited the communications director for the Tor Project in an email to Motherboard. “Tor software is free and open source, and so anyone can use it, including the CIA.”
Ironically, Tor sites have been used by criminals and terrorists alike, while some still point out how the Tor browser was originally the recipient of US government funding and connections to the intelligence community (something that still lags its public image).
Intelligence agencies are notoriously against encryption and fans of backdoors. For example, former CIA Director John Brennan was publicly against encryption and secure communications as an impediment to combatting terrorism.
But like its social media blitz of the last few years, in which the agency has tweeted puppies and wombat animations, the CIA is clearly making a concerted effort to refurbish its public image to appeal to younger generations.
In an interview with Motherboard, Edward Snowden said the recent spate of online activities by western intelligence agencies is pure public relations.
“They get Twitter accounts. Instagram accounts (with) puppies and everything like that, because they want to be friendly. They want to be on your side,” he said, only weeks before the CIA added the Tor site to its online repertoire.
In other words, like a woke Burger King ad, the CIA is trying to be cool with the kids to ensure a future for its next generation of spies.
Update: This article has been updated with comment from the Tor Project.