Anonymity Against Tyranny or The Increased Use of Tor in Russia

I published a few posts here and there throughout the years but some of them fell into Internet Oblivion. So I decided to republish a few posts that I still think are interesting and shows different uses of data analytics.

This post was first published in early 2015 when Russia was cracking down on protest movements. This led to an increased use of Tor as a way to circumvent oppressive measures put in place by the regime.

Can’t say that the situation has improved since then…


The Digital Manifestations blog (a political+analytics blog I used to maintain) is about the understanding of political events through the lens of digital artifacts it leaves behind. But we do recognize that not all political events should be traceable, as those artifacts would in itself jeopardize founding principles of a healthy democratic community.

It’s the absence of artifacts that’s frequently the most important dimension of the unfolding of an important political event. And Tor is at the hearth of what makes possible the free expression and free association of citizens living under privacy-abusive or just plain censoring regimes.

The use of technology to circumvent the prohibition of free expression and association has many examples throughout history. One of the most telling is probably the use of encrypted communications by the ANC (African National Congress) that helped bring down the South African Apartheid regime. Or more recently, the use of social media during the Arab Spring or the Brazilian Mobilisation in the Summer of 2013 (I have a few interesting posts on that subject that I will publish eventually).

The more oppressive a regime, the less it becomes representative of the diversity of opinion from its constituents. The more anonymizing technology are helpful in reestablishing democratic openness in the public sphere. Russia is an example where we’ve witnessed an important increase in the use of Tor which allows for anonymous use of the internet (free consultation of content, free expression of ideas and free association).

Note that the spike in August 2013 was due to a botnet “attack” and not legitimate use. Although, as we’ll see later, part of the increase in Russia may also be explained by repressive measures from the Putin regime.

(Daily Tor Users in Russia)

In this era where technology has mostly been associated with mass surveillance, it’s important to be reminded of the essential role of anonymity in a healthy democratic regime.

“Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.”, from the 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission

“As the Supreme Court has recognized the Internet offers a new and powerful democratic forum in which anyone can become a “pamphleteer” or “a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.” – https://www.eff.org/issues/anonymity

“Anonymity gives a voice to the voiceless. […] it is precisely the “permanent record ” left online that keeps many of the poor from speaking out on the Internet.” – https://www.torproject.org/about/torusers.html.en

The Russian regime has an history of targeting their opposition and preventing mobilisation…

(Actors targeted by the Russian regime – as encoded by the GDELT project)

(Number of weekly ‘threatening protesters’ political events in Russia – as encoded by the GDELT project)

The Russian regime’s threats against the Tor network (other story) and attempt to build their own “Great Firewall of China” is mostly fuelling the use of Tor as an assembly point for all opposition forces.

In this great read on Russia’s efforts to control the Internet in their country, there is a significant event in July 2013 that pushes many to turn to Tor as an alternative.

“In July 2013, Vladimir Putin signed a law that contemplates also the possibility to put under judgment non only child pornography, but also online contents that express dissent against the government.”

Although the September 2013 increase in Tor use is mostly due to the botnet attack, part of that increase can also be attributed to the law passed by Putin. As we can see from the overall Tor usage, after the botnet attack, the number of users dropped and keeps dropping. That’s not the case if we look specifically at Russian users. It does drop, but it’s still 4 times the original number of users.

(Daily Tor users worldwide)

(Daily Tor Users in Russia)

The regime has pushed everyone that’s against it to an anonymous platform that envigorates democratic forces. Let’s see how this will unfold.

By |2017-01-09T21:21:02+00:00December 22nd, 2016|Citizen Analytics|0 Comments

About the Author:

Olivier Dupuis is the CEO and founder of Lantrns Analytics, a small agency that helps you understand the motivation behind why an individual becomes a customer, the process of how he becomes one, and how to automate that process to accelerate growth and increase revenues. We illuminate your customer's journeys by providing rich data and analytics on their profiles, behaviours and motivations.