Who uses Tor? The answer to this question may seem obvious but Eric Jardine, in a paper published in New Media Society, pointed out “Activists often state that such tools are used by political dissidents who stand up to repressive regimes, but these claims lack abroad, cross-national empirical basis. Without a solid empirical foundation, it is unclear if anonymity networks are used consistently by political dissidents in highly repressive contexts.”
Jardine continued, “Data on use of the Tor network from 2011 to 2013 suggest that political repression does drive usage of anonymity-granting technologies. The results indicate that both very high and very low levels of political repression tend to drive use of Tor the most. In other words, the relationship between a country’s level of repression and the rate of individual usage of anonymity-granting technologies is U-shaped.”
Motherboard reports that Jardine told them in a phone call that “There is evidence to suggest that at extreme levels of repression, Tor does provide a useful tool to people in those circumstances to do things that they otherwise would not be able to do”.
Determination of a country’s level of repression was done by examining data sourced from Freedom House. Along with metric data about Tor, data about a country’s openness, education, log GDP, intellectual property regime, and internet penetration was used in this paper. In total, 157 countries were analyzed.
Upon analysis of Tor bridge data, Jardine found a clear correlation between repressive countries and the amount of Tor bridge users.
“As predicted, the relationship is U-shaped, confirming one empirical expectation of the opportunity and political need framework suggested above. Political repression and Tor bridge use have the strongest and most consistent association. The relationship between a regime’s political context and both the use of Tor relays and the summed measure for all Tor use is still statistically significant and U-shape in nearly every model specification.”
Jardine also found heavy Tor usage from countries that aren’t very repressed which may seem puzzling to those not acquainted with Tor. He explained that Tor is “dual-use” – Tor can be used for things other than bypassing censorship.
He placed Tor users into two categories: opportunity-based users and political need-based users. With opportunity-based users being associated with free and unrepressed countries and political need-based users associated with repressive countries.
“Opportunity is the chance that people have to use anonymity-granting technologies free from state sanction.”
“Political need indicates the benefits that anonymity-granting technologies convey onto an individual.”
Jardine hypothesized that both types of users would use Tor the most because those in repressive countries have an incentive and the means to use it a la Tor bridges. In free countries, users won’t be persecuted and so they have the opportunity to use it.
In his conclusion, Jardine wrote, “The results suggest that the technology of Tor is useful for political dissidents and those trying to exercise their basic political rights. They also suggest that the underlying rationale for use likely varies between countries. In relative terms, the results suggest that the Tor network is probably more prone to abuse in liberal countries where opportunity is the underlying driver of use than in repressive regimes where people might only turn to the network because they need to do so. …”