All August Germar asked for was $7,500 to fund his privacy-focused router project. But as the attention and controversy around his Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign snowballed over the last five days, he found himself at one point with 82 times that amount—and now with nothing.
On Friday afternoon Kickstarter suspended the crowdfunding campaign for Anonabox, an initiative to sell a tiny, $45 router that would run all a user’s online traffic over the anonymity network Tor.
The idea tapped into an explosive demand for simple privacy technology, and earned more than 10 times its modest goal in hours. But as funders shoveled more than half a million dollars into the project, they also began to pick apart Anonabox’s claims of creating custom hardware, as well as the promised security of its software. Soon, many were calling for the project to be cancelled, and asked others to report its shortfalls to Kickstarter staff, who now say they’ll cancel all investors’ pledges.
In an email to the project’s investors, Kickstarter told backers only that “a review of the project uncovered evidence that it broke Kickstarter’s rules.” Those rules, the email continued, prohibit “offering purchased items and claiming to have made them yourself,” “presenting someone else’s work as your own” and “misrepresenting or failing to disclose relevant facts about the project or its creator.”
The backlash against Anonabox began Tuesday evening, as users pointed out that the router’s hardware, which Anonabox creator Germar had claimed was custom-designed, could be found for sale from Chinese suppliers on sites like the business e-commerce platform Alibaba.
In fact, Germar soon clarified that the Anonabox prototype was built from an off-the-shelf case and a nearly stock board tweaked to add more flash memory storage, both sourced from the Chinese manufacturer Gainstrong. That was a reversal of some claims he had made before our initial story on Anonabox, which we corrected Wednesday; Germar had said, for instance, that the case was created with a custom injection mold that Anonabox had paid to have its supplier create.
Reddit users also posted images of the Anonabox alongside existing devices, as well as the comparison of the circuit boards. With the project becoming controversial, individuals asked for the project to be pulled of the Kickstarter page prompting the move from the crowdfunding site. Kickstarter spokesperson David Gallagher did not divulge the exact reason for the suspension of the fundraiser for Anonabox, but cited company policy. Germar, on the other hand, is defending his stance and revealed that he was not expecting what has happened. He also revealed that the links to Chinese products which are being highlighted did not exist when he undertook the project.
Kickstarter has told its backers that their money will not be collected. Kickstarter does not charge money from its pledgers till the funding period of a project ends and that too if the project attains the goal. Others soon followed up with critiques of Anonabox’s software: the router’s default settings left its wireless network open and included a hardcoded root password that would leave users vulnerable to spying or compromise by hackers, the said. Those security shortcomings, the project’s critics argued, were especially egregious considering that Anonabox’s founders had said they intended the device to be used by journalists protecting sources and political dissidents in repressive regimes.
As the controversy around Anonabox grew, Germar told earlier in the week that he had never intended the project to be aimed at normal, non-expert users, so much as developers who would contribute feedback and continue to improve the router. But Kickstarter users who poured money into the project instead read Germar’s claims as promising an easy, secure device that was ready for the consumer market. “I had thought this would be like push-starting a car,” Germar said on Wednesday. “Instead, it’s been like being handcuffed to a rocket.”
But some users were dismayed to see that the project was cancelled and wrote that they would be willing to fund a similar attempt to create a hardware-based Tor device if it were restarted elsewhere. “Regardless of [Kickstarter] rules being broken (and the apparently ‘drama’ surrounding it), I’d still like to get my hands on one,” wrote one backer. “So where?” “We need someone to step forward for this project, and 9,000 of us proved it,” commented another supporter. “Wherever August starts this up again, I will learn where and join again.”