City of Seattle could lead privacy and transparency efforts with SecureDrop and Tor

Draft 2

The City of Seattle has an opportunity to become the first city in the world to adopt cutting edge technology that supports personal data privacy, information security, and government transparency. SecureDrop and Tor, both free software solutions, independently designed and independently important, together create an ecosystem for government accountability.

Tor is an encrypted networking protocol used in conjunction with Tor Browser, an application that allows anyone to maintain confidentiality of certain personal data when browsing the Internet. Tor Browser is advocated to many underserved communities, like the Cambridge domestic violence prevention organization Transition House [1]. Similarly, Seattle Public Library discussed how they plan to support Tor Browser in a recent blog post titled, Online Privacy and the Use of the Tor Network in the Library [2].

Another Tor application is called “Hidden Services”. Hidden Services provide end-to-end encryption just like using “HTTPS” when connecting to your bank, but with the benefit of Tor routing that further protects personal data. There are many ethically-centered reasons why the social platform Facebook and the search engine DuckDuckGo provide their users access via Hidden Service, but mainly it is to give their users identity control.

SecureDrop is a secure and anonymous document submission system that employs Hidden Services. It is currently used by law firms like the ACLU of Washington for client intake, in addition to news media organizations like the New Yorker and the Washington Post for protecting journalist sources. SecureDrop would help satisfy the requirements of “internal institutional and external oversight mechanisms” discussed in the recently published United Nations Report of the Special Rapporteur to the General Assembly on the Protection of Sources and Whistleblowers [3].

According to Tor Project, Hidden Services provide a means for Tor users to create sites and services that are accessible exclusively within the Tor network, with privacy and security features that make them useful and appealing for a wide variety of applications. The potential of Hidden Services is huge, and much of it is yet to be explored [4].

To maximize trust building opportunities, the City should exclusively use free software when deploying technologies that interface with the public. Adopting Tor privacy applications would not just set a high bar for data privacy expectations, it would establish trust because anyone can independently review how the software works and how personal data is protected. There are several ways that City government departments could take advantage of these privacy applications. Each would provide real-world benefits that defend the rights of City residents:

1. Tor Browser

Deploying Tor Browser on certain City government computers, or supporting Tor Browser through explicit policy and education, would provide certain assurances about data privacy and demonstrate a commitment to web based data privacy initiatives. The target audience could be City government employees or the general public depending on location and goals.

Additionally, providing educational material to targeted groups of people about how to use Tor Browser effectively from personally owned computers will decrease the apprehension of accessing certain public resources or providing meaningful but anonymous feedback to specific City government organizations.

2. Hidden Services

City government organizations supply many web-based resources, but sometimes accessing these resources carry potential social or legal consequences that turn people away. These resources can be made available via Hidden Service, allowing people to access web-based resources with less stress.

3. SecureDrop

Internal: City government organizations can use SecureDrop to strengthen their commitments to accountability. By sharing a SecureDrop server address internally, organizations can deploy a dependable whistleblowing avenue, or a powerful tool for soliciting anonymous feedback.

External: Having SecureDrop for secure and anonymous document submissions would guarantee certain data privacy and information security protections because of the design of the system. Like Tor and other free and open source software projects, anyone can read about and comprehensively understand both the code and the operations of how the application is supposed to work. Public complaints, public feedback, perceived government abuse, and issues pertaining to the City of Seattle can all be securely and anonymously received with a publicly shared SecureDrop server.


1 http://www.betaboston.com/news/2014/05/07/as-domestic-abuse-goes-digital-shelters-turn-to-counter-surveillance-with-tor/

2 https://shelftalkblog.wordpress.com/2015/09/22/online-privacy-and-the-use-of-the-tor-network-in-the-library/

3 http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomOpinion/Pages/ProtectionOfSources.aspx

4 https://blog.torproject.org/blog/crowdfunding-future-hidden-services