Friday, 26 June 2015 01:32

The Onion Router: Should I use it?

By: 

BusinessWeek magazine describes it as "perhaps the most effective means of defeating the online surveillance efforts of intelligence agencies around the world". The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) calls it "the king of high-secure, low-latency internet anonymity." Another source describes it as "a tool for anonymous communication that’s so secure that even the world’s most sophisticated electronic spies haven’t figured out how to crack it.”

Some feel threatened by it. Others feel protected by it. Those who feel threatened, try to destroy it. Those who benefit, try to invest on it. Regarded as the “largest deployed anonymity network to date”, Tor’s success as a sophisticated security tool, has dragged it to the forefront of attention from governments, policy makers, media, and many more.

This article explores the Tor browser, its usage and the extent to which it is a useful tool for the regular internet user.

Tor Browser

The Onion Router, aka “Tor” is a network of servers developed to browse the internet anonymously. Initially developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory as a means of protecting government communication, Tor website describe it as a “network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet.” It is a free software and an open network that protects users against a common form of internet surveillance known as “traffic analysis”.

Tor Browser allows access to the Tor network. To make the user anonymous, Tor disguises the users' identity by moving the traffic around different Tor servers, thereby encrypting the traffic making it difficult to trace back to the end user. A source compares this process to “a tight huddle of people passing letters around. Once in a while a letter leaves the huddle, sent off to some destination. If you can't see what's going on inside the huddle, you can't tell who sent what letter based on watching letters leave the huddle.” For those who attempt to see where the traffic is coming from, would only see traffic coming from random nodes on the Tor network, rather than the computer of an individual user.

Tor User

The actual reach of Tor is estimated to be 2.5 million daily users, of which majority of users are coming from US and Europe. Russia, Iran, Vietnam, and China are also some of the top countries with users. There is no actual statistics available to estimate the type of people using the Tor network. Yet it is common knowledge that Tor is used by people for both noble and humble means, a distinct factor that defines its user base.

On a positive note, Tor website identifies five categories of Tor users; namely family & friends, businesses, activists, media, military & law enforcement. Families use Tor to preserve their privacy and protect their children when they are online; be it keeping internet activities away from the advertisers, accessing sites that are blocked by the local service provider or participating in socially sensitive communication on chat rooms, web forums, etc.

Journalists use Tor as a secure communication mode with sources and for researching on sensitive topics. Non-governmental organizations use it to connect to their home websites while they are in a foreign land. Activists use it to safeguard their members’ privacy and security online while Corporations use Tor as a safe way to conduct competitive analysis and protect sensitive procurement patterns from eavesdroppers.

Military use Tor to protect their military interests and operations, open source intelligence gathering and to protect themselves from physical harm. Law enforcement uses Tor for visiting or surveilling web sites without leaving government IP addresses in their web logs, and for security during sting operations.

On a negative note, Tor is also used by criminals, drug lords, and hacktivist groups to carry out illegitimate activities. A good example of this is the recently closed down Silk Road, the online black market which operate as Tor hidden service and accessed through Tor browser. The level of anonymity and security guaranteed by Tor leaves ample space for criminals to freely and easily carry out their criminal business and transactions in a secure environment.

Using Tor

Like any other browser, Tor has a simple interface that is very much similar to Firefox. Not surprising, Tor is a Firefox based browser. A source indicates that Tor is Firefox 10 with specific features added to the toolbar. A normal internet user may not find any difference between a regular browser and Tor in terms of its browsing capacity. However, when faced with specific situations where an individual is compelled to seek extra security online to protect himself, Tor could be the ideal choice.

Tor’s key strength lies in its capacity to anonymize the user and its ability to ensure maximum security online. Its security features are considered the best in comparison to other browsers. Even so, Tor is far from perfect mainly on the ground that it is slow in speed and unable to ensure “complete” anonymity. As it goes through so many relays to anonymize the user, Tor is slow compared to other browsers, though my personal experience reveal to the contrary. Moreover, institutions like US National Security Agency (NSA) have the capacity to find the end user if necessary that raise a question about the level of anonymity guaranteed by Tor browser. Tor website explains “Tor can't solve all anonymity problems. It focuses only on protecting the transport of data. You need to use protocol-specific support software if you don't want the sites you visit to see your identifying information.”

Internet user: Anonymity vs. Security?

A regular internet user, who use the internet to browse Facebook, Youtube or any other general information need, may not necessarily require a browser like Tor. The user is concerned about the security of his personal identifying information while on the internet rather than maintaining anonymity online. This kind of online security is possible through enabling security settings on any regular browser. Although anonymity can be a contributing factor for ensuring privacy and security online, only anonymity itself may not guarantee complete security of an internet user. Consequently, Tor becomes particularly significant when the question of “anonymity” comes into the picture.

Why remain anonymous online? Most would perceive that those who have something to hide as well as those who engage in illegitimate activities would prefer to stay anonymous online. As to the general internet user, the anonymity factor becomes significant only in particular situations where the internet poses an actual threat or harm to a person. Again this should be a matter of personal choice where an individual would evaluate a situation and decide the necessity of remaining anonymous on the internet. One’s perception of what you need to protect should determine whether to remain anonymous on the internet. However, even if you have nothing to hide, adopting good security practices and taking every measure to protect yourself when you use the internet is a smart idea. Also in certain scenarios, it is a compulsory requirement, a must on the basis of the task/work we engage on the World Wide Web; whether it is safe communication platform for children, journalists, military or activists.

Conclusion

The growth of the internet in the last two decades have pushed forward the necessity of safeguarding individual online privacy rights as never before. Tor plays a critical role in giving the internet user the choice to remain anonymous thereby increasing privacy and security online. Tor is an ideal gateway for those want to speak and read freely online. It is an avenue for free expression.

Not to forget, Tor is also a gateway for criminals, hackers, and others who engage in unethical activities. Tor’s ability for masking individual identities have led to activities that have become national and global security threats. In this sense, suspicious eye of the governments on Tor users is not a surprise. 

Success of Tor lies in tackling these challenges to ensure the highest security for the regular internet users. The very attitude that Tor is used by “those who have something to hide” should be done away with. Tor image as a safe browser for genuine internet transactions should be uplifted. Tor needs to work on its image as a safe browser for every individual who wishes to take control of their privacy and security back in their hands.

References:

  1. Tor official website - www.torproject.org
  2. Tor Project's struggle to keep the 'dark net' in the shadows - http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-28886465
  3. What is Tor and should I use it. - http://lifehacker.com/what-is-tor-and-should-i-use-it-1527891029
  4. Go Online without Getting Snooped: Tor (The Onion Router) – http://www.instructables.com/id/Go-Online-without-Getting-Snooped-Tor-The-Onion-/
  5. Tor stands strong against the NSA, but your browser can bring you down-A Look at The Onion Router (Tor) - http://lwn.net/Articles/138242/Anonymity and the Tor Network - https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2007/09/anonymity_and_t_1.html 
  6. http://www.pcworld.com/article/2052149/tor-stands-strong-against-the-nsa-but-your-browser-can-bring-you-down.htm

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