The US government has a complicated relationship with Tor. While the US is the biggest funder of the non-profit that maintains the software, law enforcement bodies such as the FBI are exploiting Tor browser vulnerabilities on a huge scale to identify criminal suspects.
To add to that messy, nuanced mix, one Department of Justice official recently personally recommended Tor to a room of over a hundred federal judges.
Ovie Carroll, director for the Cybercrime Lab at the Department of Justice, urged the judges to “use the TOR [sic] network to protect their personal information on their computers, like work or home computers, against data breaches, and the like,” Judge Robert J. Bryan said in July, according to a hearing transcript released on Friday.
“I was surprised to hear him urge the federal judges present,” Bryan said. Bryan was talking during a hearing on two motions to withdraw guilty pleas in the FBI's recent mass hacking campaign. In February 2015, the FBI took over a dark web child pornography site called Playpen, and deployed malware in an attempt to identify the site's visitors. Bryan has resided over several resulting cases from that investigation.
“I almost felt like saying, ‘That’s not a good way to protect your stuff, because the FBI can go through it like eggshells,’” Bryan continues. Of course, this isn’t really true: although the FBI has had some notable successes at identifying criminal suspects on the dark web with technological means, it is not the norm.
It's worth remembering Carroll is not the only Justice Department or US law enforcement official to endorse Tor. According to emails obtained by Motherboard, one FBI agent was also an advocate of Tor.
Indeed, it would be exceptionally foolish to assume that every law enforcement or justice official would automatically be antagonistic towards Tor. By its very nature, Tor is a dual-use technology; it can be used to protect individual privacy, circumvent censorship, and obfuscate metadata. But it can also be used by some pedophiles to remain one step ahead of the cops.
Also, if Judge Bryan's comments are accurate, Carroll's advice may not have been that robust anyway. Tor is not really useful for protecting personal information on computers, or necessarily mitigating the damage from data breaches: those just aren't the sort of things that Tor protects against.
Regardless, it’s still noteworthy to see this advice coming from a Department of Justice official.