What is TOR?
Tor is a free software browser that is designed to defend against traffic analysis. Traffic analysis is a fancy way of saying that there are individuals and organizations who monitor your internet traffic and use that information in many ways. By knowing where the traffic originates and where it ends up, others can track your behavior and your interests.
When you use the internet you generate data packets that have two parts. The first part is the data payload and the second is the header that is used for routing. Basically, the data payload is the actual data being transmitted. For example, the message in your email, the webpage you view or the video you receive or send. Most of this data information may be encrypted but the header may still reveal what you’re doing. Sometimes even what you are saying. That is because traffic analysis uses the header part. The header contains the source of the transmission, where the data is being sent, how large the file is and many other interesting aspects that may help someone determine who you are and what you are actually doing.
If you are one of those growing number of individuals that are worried about your online privacy or safety this could be a problem because many ISPs monitor every site, you visit and every email you send. They then sell that data to interested parties that help them market more efficiently. However, there are others that monitor internet traffic for more nefarious reasons. Censorship, criminal activity and spying are some reasons that can potentially threaten your personal safety and in some countries even your freedom.
Hiding your identity on the internet is never a bad idea but using the Tor browser is one step in the right directions. I say one step because by itself, it is not flawless. Serious attempts to track relay activity can lead, over time, to a hacker, ISP (Internet Service Provider) or government agency knowing the sender. That is why experienced users use several layers of protections like proxies and VPNs. See my follow up post on VPNs.
To get Tor visit their website and download directly from there. Not a third party website. After downloading the install Program, select the destination directory and click install. Once the install wizard is completed the Tor start screen will appear.
What you ultimately use depends on your reasons for using the internet. If you are discussing topics that you do not want to share with the world, having a safe and anonymous way to communicate can keep your private life private and Tor will most likely fill that bill. In the following examples I believe using the Tor browser or Tor coupled with a free proxy is all you would need.
How TOR Works
Tor stands for “The Onion Router” in reference to hiding behind layers like the layers of an Onion. Tor bounces your internet traffic off of several relays so it is very difficult for anyone to know where the original signal started or learn your internet habits.
Tor is a free software browser and an open network of volunteer operated servers that allows people to use the internet privately. Once you open Tor it will connect to the internet through a series of tunnels instead of making a direct connection to your ISP like a regular browser would do. This will prevent websites from tracking you and allow you to access websites you might not be able to without Tor. It acts like a censorship circumvention tool because if a website does not know the origin of someone accessing the site it does not know if the request is from a restricted site.
Unfortunately, software like Tor, Proxies and VPNs are used for a host of very bad reasons. Many drug transactions, downloading of pirated media or software, illegal pornography and others are performed under the cover of anonymity afforded by this type of software. I cannot stress enough the seriousness and consequences for using software for illegal uses. This post in no way condones this practice and promotes only the legitimate reasons for using this type of software.
There are a lot of very legitimate reasons for surfing the internet anonymously. Let’s say you are part of a cancer or AIDs support site or even a member in a chat room talking about sensitive topics like civil liberties, or being a victim of cyber bullying, you may feel the need to converse with others openly without your identity being known. Similar to the anonymity afforded to Alcoholic Anonymous members. Some e-commerce sites might base your interest rates on the country of origin. Searching for information about bankruptcy may negatively affect your credit score. You might want to notify the authorities or news service about an illegal activity but do not want your identity known. Similar to the www.wetip.com site.
In the above examples using a Tor browser and perhaps adding a proxy will allow you all the anonymity you need.
However, Tor is said to have been compromised in some situations and while it does do an admirable job in keeping you safe I would not bet my life on it. That is exactly what you might be doing if you live in a country which prohibits the freedoms we have in the USA. For example, if you live in North Korea or China, there are several, probably most, websites that you are not allowed to visit. If you are a corporate whistleblower and really want to keep your name out of it.
According to Tor, journalists use Tor to communicate with whistleblowers and dissidents. If you are a person who works overseas, it allows you to connect to your company website without the country you are working in knowing or being able to block your transmissions.
The Dark Web vs The Deep Web
Most of us use a part of the internet that is often referred to as the Surface Web. This part of the web is accessed by search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. (for a very nice understanding how search engines work click here) However, the Deep Web and the small part of the Deep Web known as the Dark Web are much larger in comparison and are not searched by the above mentioned search engines. In fact, the Deep Web is so big, nobody can put a clear number on how big it really is, hundreds or thousands of times bigger that the internet we normally use.
The Deep Web is in many cases just a bunch of information that is typically not accessible because it is a non-standard DNS or hidden behind search boxes of other sites. A perfect example is an unpublished post. When I write this article it is absolutely on the internet, in fact it has its own unique web address, but it is in no way searchable. Only if you had the unique address would you be able to access it.
The Deep Web/Dark Web
Reaching and even searching the Deep Web and therefor the part that is the Dark Web is available to the Tor browser. That is not in any way what this post is about. Don’t do it! In my opinion there is no good reason for the average person being on the Dark Web. Surfing the clear web with Tor and being able to search with anonymity is the only reason for this post. Remember: It is not illegal to search the web anonymously, it is illegal to perform illegal activities on the internet whether you are using the internet anonymously or not.
The TOR Browser is not the only program that provides anonymity over the internet. Programs Like Freenet and I2P allow users to communicate with each other while keeping out the general public. Both are in my opinion a little harder to work with than Tor but for using in chat rooms they are very effective.
Proxies and VPN
In this post I mentioned the use of Proxies and VPN. I will be explaining VPNs in my next post but Proxies are simply a server or another computer which serves as a relay hub to enable your internet request to be processed from other than your IP address.
When the internet was developed security was not considered. Things have evolved over time and while I am not trying to be an alarmist, the Web can be a very dangerous place in some instances. Everyone has the right to surf the internet and feel safe about doing so. These programs can help achieve that. They do not offer the full security of a VPN but they are solid programs made by people who want to keep the internet safe for all of us.
- Further reading: 5 Best Reasons For Using A VPN