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On Dmitry Bogatov and empowering privacy-protecting tools

Submitted by gwolf on Fri, 04/14/2017 - 23:53

There is a thorny topic we have been discussing in nonpublic channels (say, the debian-private mailing list... It is impossible to call it a private list if it has close to a thousand subscribers, but it sometimes deals with sensitive material) for the last week. We have finally confirmation that we can bring this topic out to the open, and I expect several Debian people to talk about this. Besides, this information is now repeated all over the public Internet, so I'm not revealing anything sensitive. Oh, and there is a statement regarding Dmitry Bogatov published by the Tor project — But I'll get to Tor soon.

One week ago, the 25-year old mathematician and Debian Maintainer Dmitry Bogatov was arrested, accused of organizing riots and calling for terrorist activities. Every evidence so far points to the fact that Dmitry is not guilty of what he is charged of — He was filmed at different places at the times where the calls for terrorism happened.

It seems that Dmitry was arrested because he runs a Tor exit node. I don't know the current situation in Russia, nor his political leanings — But I do know what a Tor exit node looks like. I even had one at home for a short while.

What is Tor? It is a network overlay, meant for people to hide where they come from or who they are. Why? There are many reasons — Uninformed people will talk about the evil wrongdoers (starting the list of course with the drug sellers or child porn distributors). People who have taken their time to understand what this is about will rather talk about people for whom free speech is not a given; journalists, political activists, whistleblowers. And also, about regular people — Many among us have taken the habit of doing some of our Web surfing using Tor (probably via the very fine and interesting TAILS distribution — The Amnesiac Incognito Live System), just to increase the entropy, and just because we can, because we want to preserve the freedom to be anonymous before it's taken away from us.

There are many types of nodes in Tor; most of them are just regular users or bridges that forward traffic, helping Tor's anonymization. Exit nodes, where packets leave the Tor network and enter the regular Internet, are much scarcer — Partly because they can be quite problematic to people hosting them. But, yes, Tor needs more exit nodes, not just for bandwidth sake, but because the more exit nodes there are, the harder it is for a hostile third party to monitor a sizable number of them for activity (and break the anonymization).

I am coincidentially starting a project with a group of students of my Faculty (we want to breathe life again into LIDSOL - Laboratorio de Investigación y Desarrollo de Software Libre). As we are just starting, they are documenting some technical and social aspects of the need for privacy and how Tor works; I expect them to publish their findings in El Nigromante soon (which means... what? ☺ ), but definitively, part of what we want to do is to set up a Tor exit node at the university — Well documented and with enough academic justification to avoid our network operation area ordering us to shut it down. Lets see what happens :)

Anyway, all in all — Dmitry is in for a heavy time. He has been detained pre-trial at least until June, and he faces quite serious charges. He has done a lot of good, specialized work for the whole world to benefit. So, given I cannot do more, I'm just speaking my mind here in this space.

[Update] Dmitry's case has been covered in LWN. There is also a statement concerning the arrest of Dmitry Bogatov by the Debian project. This case is also covered at The Register.

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