PhD student Ben Collier of the University of Edinburgh talks about using technology such as Skype to find out what motivates volunteer ‘relay operators’ around the world.

An advantage of online research is the zipping-together of geographical distance – in a recent pilot study for my PhD research, I used this to conduct a series of interviews with subjects in Germany, Russia and the UK from the comfort of my flat and a (less comfortable) room in Edinburgh University’s Old College. Having previously only conducted face-to-face interviews, this was a new experience for me, but a very interesting one, and I’ll provide here a brief summary of the study and its findings (with heartfelt thanks to all the participants).

My PhD hopes to explore the insights which a “Science and Technology Studies”-inspired approach might bring for criminological understandings of the internet. My research focuses on Tor, an anti-surveillance browser technology which allows anonymous communication and web browsing.

The Tor software is developed by a core team of paid staff and a community of volunteer programmers – the code is all available online and developed “open source”. Often referenced in media accounts as the software which supports the “DarkNet”, the Tor Browser provides secure communications for human rights defenders in repressive regimes, police officers conducting investigations, privacy-conscious citizens and others.

The software encrypts the computer’s internet traffic, which is then bounced around three “relays” run by volunteers, each of which decrypts a layer of encryption and passes the request along to the next relay in line, frustrating attempts to track the sender and receiver of the communication.

By understanding the motivations of relay operators, I hoped to begin exploring this technology and the forces which shape it

These volunteer relay operators were the focus of this pilot study. By understanding the motivations of these volunteer internet service providers, the challenges they face and how they described their work, I hoped to begin exploring this technology and the forces which shape it.

Conducting interviews through Internet Relay Chat and Skype calls, I spoke to a small sample of relay operators from around the world, who described their day-to-day business of operating a node, opinions around surveillance and technology, and feelings about the goals of the project. A real diversity of approaches was evident – from casual hobbyists with cultural ties to the project running single nodes, to deeply engaged volunteers running banks of Tor nodes, who showed less interest in cultural aspects of community membership and had a strong public service framing of their work.

Despite maintaining the “neutrality” of the technology itself, the participants’ motives for running nodes were deeply rooted in their personal values and nuanced understandings of the relationships between IT networks, power relations and politics. These initial findings suggests the potential for more research on the interplay between identity, social interaction and technology in Tor’s community, code and infrastructure.

Learn more about the work of our diverse PhD community on the SCCJR website.