WikiLeaks and Tor: Moral use of an amoral system?

Reading the New Yorker’s piece on WikiLeaks, it’s hard to decide whether I’m reading about freedom fighters, skilled propagandists, or as is often the case, both.

Without looking too deeply, although I have serious reservations about their editorial decisions from time to time, I believe in what WikiLeaks is trying to do, and I have since they first arrived on the scene.

But I’m profoundly worried to read about Tor server traffic mined for data.

If I have the story straight, this is the sort of behavior Tor is designed to protect people from, not subject them to:

Before launching the site, Assange needed to show potential contributors that it was viable. One of the WikiLeaks activists owned a server that was being used as a node for the Tor network. Millions of secret transmissions passed through it. The activist noticed that hackers from China were using the network to gather foreign governments’ information, and began to record this traffic. Only a small fraction has ever been posted on WikiLeaks, but the initial tranche served as the site’s foundation, and Assange was able to say, “We have received over one million documents from thirteen countries.”

Confusing, right?

In this narrative, Chinese hackers are crawling the Tor network for the purpose of espionage. Someone attached to WikiLeaks with access to a Tor node — most likely an anonymous volunteer, if we believe the narrative regarding the structure of WikiLeaks elsewhere in the story — notices this, and starts tracking the activity of the Chinese hackers.

My first set of questions, directed toward friends who know far more about Tor than I do:

  • What, what? Can “hackers from China” successfully trawl Tor for information?
  • Hold on, even if they can, could someone with access to logs from a single Tor node figure that out, and then, figure out how to get access to the same documents the Chinese were accessing?

And then we come to my greater question, and worry:

If these two points of the narrative are true, then Tor is (perhaps as it should be?) an amoral network being used for both good and evil (painting with a broad brush here, forgive me).

And if that’s the case, if Tor is just a platform that doesn’t make any judgments of its use, how do we then judge the acts of a lone WikiLeaks/Tor volunteer?

Is it OK to hack Tor in the name of the public good?

And if it is, what do we do when secrets are exposed that don’t serve the public good?

I’m not sure, but I have a hard time trusting Tor or WikiLeaks right now.

Tell me why I’m wrong…

(It occurs to me now, of course, that the “Tor” line in the narrative could easily be a falsehood, constructed to substitute for something a bit more direct. If WikiLeaks wanted to fend off queries regarding the sources of documents in their possession, getting them from a network that theoretically provides total anonymity to the user certainly sounds like a solid way to parry those questions. Maybe.)

More context: Does the “military” section of the “Who uses Tor” page answer any of my questions?

These are all open questions. I’m reading up on the history of Tor, and its vulnerabilities. I’ll update this post with anything I hear from friends who know better…

[UPDATE: As expected, commenters come through. Ethan Zuckerman added a thorough explanation of what someone hosting a Tor server would be doing monitoring what users are up to, among other things.]

[SECOND UPDATE: The Tor Project blog responds, pointing out that Tor doesn’t magically encrypt text, it simply allows for the anonymous transfer of files. So if you use unsecure connections and send data in plain text, it’s just as safe as writing down the information on a piece of paper, folding it into an airplane, and throwing it across the street. (My ridiculous metaphor, not Tor’s.)  The other interesting thing you’ll find in the Tor blog post is this sentence: “We hear from the Wikileaks folks that the premise behind these news articles is actually false — they didn’t bootstrap Wikileaks by monitoring the Tor network.”] //Thanks to commenter Shava Nerad for pointing out the Tor post and more.

Further reading: