Surfing the Web: Protecting Identities Online

Roger Dingledine, computer scientist
Computer scientist and Internet rights advocate Roger Dingledine. (Image credit: NSF.)

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

By some accounts, communication through social media and the Internet played a key role in organizing the Arab Spring of early 2011. Authoritarian rulers in Egypt, Libya, and Syria considered the technology so empowering to protestors, they shut down their Internets completely. In some countries, Internet users were arrested or even killed. Repressive regimes around the world still block some or all public Internet use.

Computer scientist and Internet rights advocate Roger Dingledine has spent his own career trying to change that. As a grad student at MIT, he and his coworkers developed an early anonymity system for Internet communications, which became the forerunner of what he now calls "Tor," or, The Onion Router. Onion is a metaphor for the system's many encryption layers that protect a user's identity. Tor directs Internet traffic through a free, worldwide, network consisting of more than 5,000 volunteer relays to conceal a user's location or usage from network surveillance or traffic analysis.

While evil doers have used Tor to carry out illicit activities anonymously, the system, first developed for the U.S. Navy, is really for the good guys, Dingledine says. Individuals at risk of reprisal (or worse) use Tor to keep websites from tracking them and to connect to news sites or instant messaging services. Journalists use it to communicate with whistleblowers and dissidents. The military and law enforcement have used Tor to keep from being detected by enemies or criminals.

These days, Dingledine spends most of his time managing the vast Tor network by way of email. Still, he says, "Every time I hear from a user saying, 'I'm in Syria and my family is not dead because I'm using your tool' … that's a great reason to keep working on it."

Tor was awarded the Free Software Foundation's 2010 Award for Projects of Social Benefit, saying it has "enabled roughly 36 million people around the world to experience freedom of access and expression on the Internet while keeping them in control of their privacy and anonymity."

Currently president and director of The Tor Project, Dingledine received bachelor's degrees in mathematics and computer science from MIT, as well as a master's degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the same institution. In 2000, he interned at the National Security Agency, where he advised the government about Internet anonymity systems. He is project leader for both the Simple End-User Linux projects and the Free Haven projects. He is also the Security Philosopher for Reputation Technologies, Inc. In 2006, MIT's Technology Review magazine cited Dingledine as one of the top 35 innovators under the age of 35.

Below, he answers our 10 questions.

Name: Roger Dingledine Institution: Tor Project, Walpole, MA Field of Study: cybersecurity, anonymity

Editor's Note: The researchers depicted in ScienceLives articles have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.

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