These notes were written by Sue Gardner based on a session at the winter dev meeting about Tor community health. The session mostly focused on the mental and physical health problems of the individuals present resulting from their work and the environment. This was a table conversation attended by about 15 people: we didn't create any work product (e.g., stickies), and I didn't take many notes. The notes here are my impressions from the discussion, reconstructed from notes I took during the workshop as well as from memory.

What surfaced in the conversation was the degree to which Tor-involved people feel stressed, alienated, anxious or isolated in doing their Tor-related work. Some of this, I believe, is not Tor-specific, i.e., it's fairly normal for developers to report high rates of depression, isolation, ADD, and anxiety, and developers often have bad self-care/coping habits such as bad sleep hygiene or self-medication with coffee or alcohol. That's probably as true for Tor as it is for other technical cultures. But what came out in our discussions is that Tor-involved people seem to experience significant additional stress, due to their specific context.

  • Tor has external critics and enemies, and the individuals involved with Tor are sometimes targets of surveillance and may be detained, questioned, and/or publicly smeared.
  • The steps Tor people take to protect against surveillance (e.g., avoiding or self-monitoring in non-private communications channels) may result in a heightened sense of social isolation/anxiety, because they end up with very few safe spaces in which they can talk freely with people they trust.
  • Because it isn't ordinarily clear whether or when or how someone is being monitored, the uncertainty itself becomes an additional stressor and can lead to Tor people constantly monitoring their own perceptions and worrying they're being overly paranoid.
  • Tor people seem anxious about the future: that their work might actually become illegal, or that the world may shift such that their work grows more stigmatised rather than more accepted.

All that is highly stressful, and I am guessing based on the group's discussion that it can be a bit of a vicious circle, because when people are stressed they tend to behave in ways --e.g., being perpetually irritated/angry/agitated, withdrawing/avoiding, etc.,-- that amplify the stress of everybody around them.

These/similar stressors exist in other worlds such as investigative reporting and reporting from warzones, online community moderation and trust/safety/abuse investigation (e.g., Wikipedia, Reddit), the work of public servants such as public defenders and social workers, and human rights fact-finding and other forms of activism/advocacy work. In all those domains, it's common for people to experience mental or emotional health issues such as stress, secondary or vicarious trauma, burnout, depression, PTSD, etc., and so over time those domains have built up support for their people -- offering e.g., access to mental health resources such as CBT or other forms of counseling, offering safety training for journalists going into warzones, rotating people out of traumatising work at regular periods, etc.

In our group, there seemed to be a pretty strong sense that not only does Tor not offer "extra" support to match the heightened level of stress faced by Tor people, it actually offers less support than a normal organisation. People talked about stuff like delayed contracts, delayed or very low pay, low or non-existent job security, a lack of ordinary health insurance / health care, poor conflict resolution inside Tor, and a lack of acknowledgement of (or responsiveness to) problems of various kinds. (Note there was some acknowledgement that this is beginning to change, "but not quickly enough.") In general, I'd say the people at the workshop seemed worried about themselves and others in the Tor community, saying that they feel "lonely and isolated, bitter and resentful," "mistreated," "not looked after," and "unsafe."

Here's a brainstorm of things that seem like they might reduce Tor people's feelings of stress. About a third of this was generated in the meeting, a third by casual conversations I had with individuals afterwards, and a third by me.


  • Clearer sense of job security for individuals; greater job security where possible
  • Livable pay where possible
  • Job descriptions, clear reporting lines where possible (your boss is an advocate; cares & thinks about you)
  • Reliable, affordable medical care (insurance)
  • Access to therapy *(note that due to confidentiality issues probably not everybody involved with Tor would consider taking advantage of this)
  • Sense of what career pathing looks like at Tor
  • "Wellness"-type funding for individuals, so that people can go to the gym, get massage, buy melatonin, etc.
  • Immigration support (legal)
  • Sense that in general the organisation "has your back," cares about you, is invested in your health & happiness
  • Much better/faster/clearer dispute resolution
  • HR person you can contact about problems, questions
  • More responsive leadership, in general
  • Communications function advocating for Tor publicly
  • Etc.

Specific for an organisation like Tor:

  • "Safe" moderated internal social spaces for Tor people to hang out (IRC)
  • Better shared agreement on internal community values/norms around kindness/collegiality/respect, etc.
  • Medical support specific to common developer problems such as ADD, depression, anxiety
  • Better-than-normal HR including on-staff counseling or other mental/emotional support (standardised TSI-2 or similar), plus development of expertise for maintaining individual and collective wellness in the face of this kind of stress
  • Threat modeling (individual-centric) -- what are your vulnerabilites, how can you be safer
  • Security/privacy auditing (individual-centric) -- has your laptop been hacked, is there malware/spyware etc.
  • Legal/risk auditing (related to Tor work) -- what is people's exposure, how can they best manage their risk
  • Legal support (related to Tor work)
  • Expertise around managing smears/doxing/online attacks
  • Etc.
Last modified 4 years ago Last modified on May 7, 2015, 3:21:35 AM