Onion flowers in California

An idealistic new generation of hackers is working with Tor. Here’s one of them.

Jun 18, 2015 · 3 min read

Jesse Victors was chosen as one of the Tor Project’s first class of Summer of Privacy students — he is currently working with Tor developers to refine tools that keep human rights activists, journalists, and others safe from being targeted by surveillance. Communications Director Kate Krauss interviewed Jesse recently.

Why are you interested in working on ​free software?

Free and open-source software (FOSS) has a fascinating ecosystem. The world is quite familiar with companies that enforce copyright and lock down access to information, but imagine an environment where the opposite was true: software had to be free, it had to be inspectable, anyone could contribute to it, and it could never be hidden or locked down. This brings out the best in people and allows a large community to create fascinating software, like Linux, Tor, or Android. I enjoy being a part of these communities and developing software that I know will benefit many others: part of it is a noble cause.

Describe your project to a lay reader — What is the point of it? Who will it help?

Anyone who has used Tor is familiar with its main purpose: providing secure and privacy-enhanced access to the Internet. However, Tor also supports access to hidden services, which are basically websites of unknown location or ownership. These are used for many purposes such as anonymous Internet searching, private email, and support groups where everyone has privacy. However, hidden services are difficult to access because people have to type in complicated domain names like “3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion” into the Tor Browser. This makes it nearly impossible to remember the address for a hidden service, which is a major usability problem.
In my work, which is also the subject of my Master’s thesis, I am developing the Onion Name System as a solution. It is a secure, privacy-enhanced, and Tor-powered distributed system that allows users to simply type in meaningful names like “example.tor” and be taken to the hidden service. This significantly enhances the memorability and recognition of hidden services and should be very valuable to the Tor community.

What do you hope to get out of the Tor Summer of Privacy?

I look forward to working closely with other Tor developers and see this system developed and integrated into Tor. Although I have worked on several other significant open-source projects before, this is the first time I have worked on a project of this scale. Tor has over two million daily users and a very active community; my work here will be an excellent source of experience, a resume piece, and a contribution to privacy. This will also be the first time that I am paid for significant contributions to a large open-source project, which is an excellent start to my professional career.

Who are your heroes — if you have any — in internet freedom software?

That’s a very good question. I have always admired Aaron Swartz, whose contributions to the Internet and its culture are far too numerous to list here, and I was sad to hear of his passing. I also appreciate Linus Torvalds and other kernel developers who have created and maintained Linux, which powers most of the Internet and is the world’s largest open-source project. Of course, I also respect Roger Dingledine and Nick Mathewson for their creation and continual support of the Tor Project.

Where do you go to school and what are you studying?

I am a Masters student at Utah State University. My research interest is in network security, which is, as I like to call it, the art of keeping information private and secure in a very public and connected world. The field has grown massively over the past two years and anyone involved with computers now recognizes its importance. I hope to enter the field professionally as well and I consider my research and work here a great start. —

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