Tor Project’s new director faces big challenges in reaching broader public

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After a many-months-long search for a new executive director, the Tor Project announced last week that it has hired Shari Steele, former head of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), to lead the organization.

Steele spent 15 years at EFF, including the last eight as its executive director, helping to grow the organization into one of the world’s foremost privacy advocates.

In her new role, Steele will be the main voice and face of the Tor Project, tasked with raising its profile, securing new sources of funding, and expanding the use of its anonymity software and tools to the broader public.

The Tor Project, founded by Roger Dingledine and Nick Matthewson in 2006, develops and maintains free software and tools that support anonymous communications on the Dark Web.

The Tor network uses layers of encryption to shield your location and the location of any hidden services you use.

Although it was originally developed by the US Navy, and is largely funded by the US government, the Tor network has come under attack by law enforcement and intelligence agencies including the FBI and the NSA.

One of Steele’s biggest challenges is changing the perception of Tor, which has become something of a safe haven for criminals, terrorists and child abusers.

Although it’s inevitable that Tor will be used to conceal illegal activities, it’s also a useful tool for protecting people who need anonymity to do dangerous but beneficial work, like whistleblowers, journalists and human rights activists.

In a post on the Tor Project blog, Steele said that her mission is to grow the organization by fostering “greater adoption of Tor products by mainstream internet users.”

Despite the rapid growth of people using Tor in the wake of revelations of NSA surveillance by leaker Edward Snowden, it is far from “mainstream.”

In our trustworthy browser poll back in October 2015, only 6% said Tor was the browser they trust the most, which suggests that the Tor Project has a steep hill to climb to get to mainstream acceptance and adoption.

Still, if anyone is up to the challenge, Steele seems like an excellent choice.

As Dingledine noted in his blog post announcing the hire, Steele has been a long-time supporter of Tor, having led EFF’s choice to fund Tor.

Steele also has the experience of growing an organization with a similar focus to Tor’s, and successfully launched EFF’s privacy tool HTTPS Everywhere, developed in collaboration with the Tor Project.

Dingledine said the move will allow him and co-founder Matthewson to get back to their old roles of “actually doing technical work,” while Steele takes over the organizational side of things:

Tor's technical side is world-class, and I am excited that Shari will help Tor's organizational side become great too. She shares our core values, she brings leadership in managing and coordinating people, she has huge experience in growing a key non-profit in our space, and her work pioneering EFF's community-based funding model will be especially valuable as we continue our campaign to diversify our funding sources.

The Tor Project faces technical challenges too, in fending off attacks and closing vulnerabilities, such as one discovered by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University that was reportedly used by the FBI to bust a number of Dark Web markets including Silk Road 2.0.

If the Tor Project is going to grow and thrive, it will certainly need to secure more funding, build a more sustainable infrastructure and generate better public awareness – those are not going to be easy tasks.

But maintaining its own security is perhaps the most essential task of all.

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