Competition in Cyberspace: Why Russia’s Anti-Privacy Hacking Is Doomed to Fail

Russian President Vladimir Putin, pictured during his tenure as Russian Prime Minister, at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, 28 January 2009 (Flickr Commons) There is little doubt that the development of interconnected networks like the Internet has marked a significant change in the way that politically motivated individuals, organizations, and states interact the world over. Cyberspace has become more than just a medium supporting different or more effective types of interconnections—rather, it is a domain in which all manner of political function might be accessed, protected, and, perhaps most interestingly, subverted.

Unsurprisingly, a desire for anonymity in online affairs ranks high on the operational “must-have” list for actors at every level of global society. Anonymity protects citizens fearing censorship as much as it does criminal elements seeking a secure method of organization or intelligence entities wishing to encourage favored political movements abroad. This fact has led to a proliferation of technologies, from “darknet” peer-to-peer (P2P) networks to relay programs, whose sole aim is to protect, via concealment, the identities and activities of network users.

Perhaps the most famous of these anonymity-enabling online platforms is Tor, a rerouting program that was recently targeted by a Russian government competition designed “to study the possibility of obtaining technical information on users and users’ equipment.” Tor works to mask online user identity (denoted by a device’s IP address) by redirecting packages of information through thousands of computer relays worldwide. It is also directly funded by, among others, the U.S. Department of Defense. Tor has become especially popular in Russia over the past year, where tightening regulations on Internet registration and the advocacy of exiled analyst Edward Snowden have likely helped catalyze its mass usage.

The Russian government’s public bounty on Tor, which has already been linked explicitly to President Vladimir Putin by some media outlets, reflects a clear desire to circumvent present iterations of identity-hiding software. This is not, of course, unexpected. On the one hand, it is undoubtedly the case that some criminal organizations profit from such software and that Putin’s administration would benefit from an enhanced ability to monitor these groups. On the other hand, however, Tor provides an enduring capacity to organize and avoid censorship for just the kind of pro-democracy movements and anti-government institutions that have consistently been targeted as “controversial” and “disruptive” by the Russian government in recent years.

Indeed, the fact of the matter is that Tor is currently utilized by hundreds of thousands of individuals and organizations around the globe for a range of activities that are, by and large, desirable. Though illicit enterprises are certainly of concern, it is unquestionably the case that individuals in a variety of different circumstances worldwide stand to benefit from the ability to conduct business online without fear of oppressive regulation or informational insecurity. Recognition of this fact accounts for and is reflected by the U.S. government’s enduring support of the Tor product.

The question then becomes one of response. How, for instance, should the West view Russia’s attempt to circumvent popular anonymizing protocols? Would the success of Russia’s bounty on Tor significantly hinder the mobilization and enablement of pro-Western, pro-democracy movements in central Eurasia? Hacking Tor would undoubtedly provide the Russian government with the means to further its heavy regulation of domestic network users, and aggressively enhance its information-gathering footprint within its sphere of influence, in the short-term. In the long-term, however, policymakers, developers, and users should take comfort in the fact that such an effort is likely to be of extreme value to pro-anonymity efforts in the long term.

The Putin administration’s attempt to incentivize a sophisticated citizen developer base to “crack the code” with regards to Tor ironically reflects a reliance on the long-standing principle that motivated competition breeds innovation. Indeed, Moscow’s decree is, in many ways paradoxically, precisely the type of catalytic driver that has the potential to produce a durable and responsive marketplace for developers of increasingly advanced methods of action and subversion in cyberspace in the near future. Even if Russia’s bounty is intended as a feint to hide the fact that the Putin government has already acquired such capabilities, a public announcement of the kind targeting Tor is still likely to have significant effect.

In the specific case of Tor, the numerous wealthy and motivated backers of the platform are as likely to benefit from Russia’s attempted subversion of the current program as are undesirable parties. This is because the resulting product—whether a patched update or an evolutionary iteration—will undoubtedly stand as a far more robust method of achieving online anonymity than Tor’s current version. In the broader context of global network processes and cybersecurity more generally, a financial incentive to produce alternative approaches to increasingly sophisticated forms of different functions will likely ensure the continuing existence of those platforms. This will invariably allow numerous and varied actors—including, admittedly, undesirable ones—to meet suitably compelling political and economic needs.

Ultimately, Russia’s attempts to circumvent popular anonymizing protocols are no bad thing for the West, at least in strategic terms. Statements of explicit interest from legitimate political bodies, like those made by the Kremlin regarding Tor, go a long way toward actualizing a market for digital developments beyond the traditional scope of cyber research, which is often constrained by the economic ability of corporations to monetize different technologies. The Tor effort may grant Russia a short-lived method of overcoming its prescient concerns about the trajectory of movements considered disruptive to societal function. However, non-zero day hacks like those likely to emerge from the competition—or from preemptive attempts to bolster Tor’s defenses—will inevitably serve only to improve identity-hiding products. Moreover, in a twist of irony, Russian actions will likely stimulate the growth of a marketplace that functions as a corrective institution for such counter-privacy efforts in the future. While Putin’s crusade against Tor may result in a short-lived victory in the battle for cyberspace, his tactics will almost certainly lose the war.