Saturday, April 25, 2015

This Browser Everyone's Been Talking About Lately Makes You Anonymous. But Should You Really Use It?

Rarely heard of outside the tech community, the Tor browser has come under the spotlight in the last few months, but not for the right reasons. Since revelations about the surveillance strategies of the US and UK spies surfaced, Tor has become the focal point of criticism for facilitating a dangerous "dark web" of users consisting of paedophiles, drug dealers and arms traders. All this because of the anonymity factor that Tor boasts of.

While a criminal contingent may use the site to disguise their identities, its creators point to a wider group of legitimate users, including journalists, activists, law enforcement professionals, whistle-blowers, and businesses that want to go about their work anonymously. In a year Tor has grown from 500,000 daily users worldwide to more than 4 million users, provoking people to sit up and take notice.
What is Tor?
Tor is short for The Onion Router, initially a worldwide network of servers developed with the U.S. Navy that enabled people to browse the internet anonymously. However, it’s a non-profit organization now that conducts research and development into online privacy and anonymity. To put things simply, it is designed to stop people – including government agencies and corporations – learning your location or tracking your browsing habits.
The Tor network disguises your identity by moving your traffic across different Tor servers, and encrypting that traffic so it isn't traced back to you. Anyone who tries would see traffic coming from random nodes on the Tor network, rather than your computer.
To access this network, you just need to download the Tor browser. Everything you do in the browser goes through the Tor network and doesn't need any setup or configuration from you. That said, since your data goes through a lot of relays, it's slow, so you'll experience a much more sluggish internet than usual. It blocks some browser plugins like Flash and QuickTime as well. YouTube videos don't play by default either, although you can use the "opt-in trial" of YouTube's HTML5 site to bring them back.
What’s it good for?
If you want to be anonymous — say, if you live under a dictatorship, you're a journalist in an oppressive country, or a hacker looking to stay hidden from the government, or even living in a place where your internet activities are monitored — Tor is one of the easiest ways to become invisible on the net, and it's free. It's far from perfect though.
The dark side of Tor
The cloak of anonymity provided by Tor makes it attractive and powerful for criminals. Another NSA document described it thus: "Very naughty people use Tor".
Tor can mask users' identities, but also host their websites via its "hidden services" capabilities, which means sites can only be accessed by people on the Tor network. This is the so-called "dark web" element, and it's not unusual to see Tor pop up in stories about a range of criminal sites.
In August, a service provider called Freedom Hosting went offline after the FBI sought the extradition of a 28-year-old Irish man for charges relating to distributing and promoting child abuse material online. Underground illegal-drug marketplace Silk Road, which was shut down in early October, was another hidden site only accessible through Tor, as was another store called Black Market Reloaded which has been accused of facilitating illegal arms dealing as well as drug purchases.
Should you be using it?
So if you're an average user looking at cat GIFs, browsing Facebook, and making memes, you probably don't need to worry about it since Tor is just going to slow down your connection. It's more likely that you need to secure your internet rather than anonymise it. For example, when you're using public Wi-Fi.
If you want to stay anonymous because you're downloading large files and don't want people to see what you're downloading — say, on BitTorrent — Tor is not a good solution. It won't keep you anonymous, and you'll slow down everyone else's traffic for no reason.
In other cases where you want to stay anonymous, Tor will do the trick, and it'll do it freely and easily.

Most importantly, remember that nothing is 100% anonymous or secure, whether you're using Tor, a VPN, or anything else. If you think you need something along these lines, think about what exactly you're doing and what you need to protect — half the battle is picking the right tool for the job.