Perceived threats from other individuals, groups of people and governments are forcing internet users to turn to IP obfuscation tools, such as the onion router, says a study.
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"The most common concern voiced by participants was a fear that their online communication or activities may be accessed or logged by parties without their knowledge or consent," according to the authors.
This threat, which became very real for many Americans after Edgar Snowden revealed the extent of the National Security Agencies surveillance and monitoring practices, has been ever-present for users in other countries for some time.
More recently, an investigation by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California found that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram provided user data access to a developer of a social media monitoring product that helped police monitor racially charged protests in Baltimore, Maryland.
The new study led by researchers at Drexel University set out to gather the stories of people working on collaborative projects online -- like editing Wikipedia -- and concerned about their privacy and taking steps to protect it.
The researchers interviewed 23 people, from seven countries ranging in age from 18-41, who either use anonymity tactics or consider how to protect their privacy while participating in open collaborations, like Wikipedia.
Twelve of them access the internet for online collaborations using Tor software to mask their IP address, which means the location of their computer cannot be ascertained and logged by the sites they visit.
People who want to be online without being traced have been using Tor -- the onion router -- for more than a decade. While it has the reputation of being a service for people to do nefarious deeds online, many reporters and political dissidents turned to the anonymity network following Edward Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency's invasive online monitoring activities.
The study's central finding is that perceived threats from other individuals, groups of people and governments are substantial enough to force users below the radar in order to protect their reputation, themselves, and their families.
"Wikipedia editors are volunteers who are trying to build a comprehensive free information resource for everyone on the planet. Tor users are often not seen in those positive ways. But these two organizations are actually committed to the same things -- a free global exchange of information with everyone able to participate," said lead author of the study Andrea Forte, Associate Professor in Drexel's College of Computing & Informatics.
The study, entitled "Privacy, Anonymity, and Perceived Risk in Open Collaboration: A Study of Tor Users and Wikipedians," was published in advance of its presentation at the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing to be held in Portland, Oregon in February, 2017.
The Tor network is a group of volunteer-operated servers that allows people to improve their privacy and security on the Internet. Tor's users employ this network by connecting through a series of virtual tunnels rather than making a direct connection, thus allowing both organizations and individuals to share information over public networks without compromising their privacy. Along the same line, Tor is an effective censorship circumvention tool, allowing its users to reach otherwise blocked destinations or content. Tor can also be used as a building block for software developers to create new communication tools with built-in privacy features.