- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Russian company hired to help the Kremlin unmask Internet users who rely on specialized software to surf the Web anonymously is backing out of its deal with the government.

Hardly a year after Russia’s Interior Ministry offered a contract worth 3.9 million rubles ($59,000) “to study the possibility of obtaining technical information on users and users’ equipment” of the Tor network, the recipient of the award, a Moscow-based defense contractor, is walking away.

Government documents cited by Russian media reveal that the Central Research Institute of Economics, Informatics and Control Systems, a division of the state-owned Rostec corporation, is spending 10 million rubles ($151,000) to break the agreement.

Tor, originally an acronym for “the onion router,” allows users to obfuscate their digital footprints by routing Internet traffic through various servers around the globe. Whistleblowers and human rights workers use the technology to stay as anonymous as possible when communicating information that might otherwise land them in trouble, and citizens in Russia and other nations where the government regulates Web access have been increasingly installing Tor to circumvent censorship.

Since the Kremlin began blacklisting websites that run contrary to President Vladimir Putin’s agenda in 2012, the number of daily Tor users in Russia has skyrocketed from around to 20,000 to roughly 175,000. Russia is currently the third-most active country with regards to Tor users, behind the U.S. and Germany, according to metrics provided by the Tor Project, the nonprofit that maintains the technology.

Meduza, a primarily Russian-language website often critical of Mr. Putin, reported that recently filed government documents confirm the Central Research Institute of Economics, Informatics and Control Systems has assembled lawyer to “prepare the legal basis for the termination” of four government contracts, including the one concerning Tor.

So far this year, the Kremlin’s online watchdog group, Roskomnadzor, has ordered Russian Internet service providers to block access to Wikipedia and Reddit, among other sites, due to content that ran afoul of government regulators. Both bans were quickly lifted, but websites that publish anti-Kremlin discourse and calls-to-action are routinely added to Russia’s online blacklist.

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