Parliamentary Note Claims Tor Ban ‘Not Acceptable’

A new parliamentary document claims that banning Tor and online anonymity networks like it would not be an “acceptable policy option” in the UK, given the technical challenges of doing so and the cover it gives law enforcers investigating serious crimes.

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) is an independent in-house source of science and tech analysis on public policy issues which MPs and peers frequently cite in debates.

In its latest explanatory POSTnote on Monday, it outlined the pros and cons of the darknet and networks like Tor, I2P and Freenet.

The document first details the anonymous use of the open web provided by such networks – for example, to circumvent censorship, aid anonymous activism and journalism, facilitate peer-to-peer file sharing, and provide law enforcers with anonymity during investigations.

On the latter point, it notes that the child protection service the Internet Watch Foundation regularly uses Tor to detect and remove indecent material.

It then explains Tor Hidden Services which typically are not indexed and are incredibly difficult for law enforcers to trace.

This is where criminal markets like the Silk Road drugs marketplace are hosted, as well as indecent images of children, and some whistleblower sites.

De-anonymizing Tor users could be done by “exploiting the technical limitations of Tor” although this “requires a high level of computer expertise and significant resources,” the report said.

Another option is to identify people who have made the mistake of using the same pseudonyms on the darknet as the open web, it claims.

The note concludes:

“There is widespread agreement that banning online anonymity systems altogether is not seen as an acceptable policy option in the UK. Even if it were, there would be technical challenges. For example, when the Chinese government attempted to block access to Tor, Tor Project Inc. introduced secret entrance nodes to the Tor Network, called ‘bridges’, which are very difficult to block.

Some argue for a Tor without hidden services, because of the criminal content on some THS. However, THS also benefit non-criminal Tor users because they may add a further layer of user security … Also, computer experts argue that any legislative attempt to preclude THS from being available in the UK over Tor would be technologically unfeasible.”

The report claims that the Tor Project is developing tools and documentation to help law enforcers and would like to “intensify collaborations” in the future, as long as they don’t include advice on ways to expose limitations in Tor.

Whilst the document does not aim to shape or influence public policy, its balanced tone is a welcome relief from the tenor of political discourse on the matter up until now – most notably David Cameron’s widely criticized vow to ban strong encryption.

In fact, it even cites an argument made in 2014 book, The Dark Net, that online drug markets like Silk Road could actually reduce drug-related crimes by shortening the “supply chain” from producers to consumers – “and thus lower the social and economic costs of drug misuse.”

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