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Tor Project Battled Over Hiring Ex-CIA Agent, Chat Logs Show

The log shows an organization stuck between a rock and a hard place: one that wants to develop, but which also has to deal with the PR-fallout of working with former government.

by Joseph Cox
Jun 26 2016, 5:00pm

Image: Tor Project.

The Tor Project, the nonprofit that maintains the world's most popular anonymity software, is often protective of its public image. In particular, the organization faces regular—and often unsubstantiated—attacks about the motivations of its funders, and specifically its reliance on money from the US government.

Related to that delicate PR dance are recently unearthed logs from an internal chat channel for the Tor Project, which show how staff were torn over the brief hiring of an ex-CIA official, and how that would affect the organization's image and safety of activists' family members too. Overall, the logs show an organization that is stuck between a rock and a hard place: one that wishes to develop and perhaps have greater links with government if they would be beneficial, but which then has to deal with the public's' perception of that.

"This is an IRC log from #tor-internal—our water cooler irc channel. It was made on November 10th, 2014," the log starts. Motherboard has confirmed the legitimacy of the transcript. Leaking and archival site Cryptome shared the chat logs on Twitter today, but the Pastebin post is dated August 29th 2015.

"Please be considerate with this log file—it is probably not a good idea to leak it to anyone but transparency for this is absolutely essential. We're headed for some soul searching as a result of the recent messaging thread and this is probably going to be an involved process," it continues. Although the author of the log is not made explicit, Jacob Appelbaum, who recently left the Tor Project after a flurry of serious sexual harassment allegations, says at the end of the transcript that he intends to log the hours long conversation.

The main gist of the chat centres around the hiring of "DaveC1," a supposed ex-CIA agent who was brought onto the Tor Project without some internal members being aware of his previous affiliation. What DaveC1 could bring to the table, according to him, was a greater understanding of the decision making process of "bureaucrats who debate whether or not to keep paying the bills at Tor."

But, it's not just being left in the dark that irked many Tor Project members: the potential PR-disaster of hiring an ex-CIA agent was an issue.

"I'm curious, how do you picture an ex-CIA within the Tor Project as being good for Tor's public image?," Runa Sandvik, a security researcher who used to be a Tor developer, asks DaveC1. "I'm concerned we are going to lose a lot of public support," she adds.

Indeed, the Tor Project constantly battles with bad press. Plenty of media outlets, some law enforcement officials, and general critics castigate the Tor network for facilitating child pornography, amongst other things. Others have previously used the Tor Project's heavy reliance on US government funding and the background of its development as an apparent reason to distrust the Tor software writ large. Having a former CIA agent on board would likely only stoke those fires.

"I think it was incredibly selfish of you to join tor knowing this would utterly fuck us PR-wise," helix writes.

There was concern that if the information was to become public—either through a planned article or a leak—having the Tor Project linked to the CIA could lead to real, physical harm on activists' families living under regimes hostile to the US.

Ultimately, DaveC1 stepped down shortly after announcing his entry into the Tor Project, Motherboard understands. The Tor Project did not respond to a request for comment.