Have you heard about the Tor anonymous network recently in the news and not known what it is exactly. Well the fact that the Russian Government are willing to pay $110,000 to anyone who can crack the identities of users of the network got me interested in digging a little deeper to find out more.
What did I find out?
Created and presented first in 2002 as an onion routing (named because of the layers that onions have) project for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, the Tor network has advanced steadily over the last decade. Now thanks to $2m annual funding from the United States Department of Defense and a few other organisations Tor is advancing in the war against online anonymity.
How does it work?
So starting with the basics, Tor (or TOR – The Onion Router as is was once known) is a piece of free software that enables online anonymity for types of communication, whether that is surfing sites, sending data, instant messages or anything else.
Based on the process of onion routing a person sends data which is immediately encrypted and bounced randomly along a set of network relays that are run by volunteers all around the globe. The encryption is multi-layered and at each relay a layer of the encryption is removed revealing the next destination. When the final layer is decrypted by the last relay the final message is sent to the destination. The clever part is that because of the encryption each relay does not know where the communication has come from or what is in the communication: It simply sends it on.
Tor aims to make your web traffic anonymous and completely conceal the identity of the user; is that a good thing?
Well without doubt the Tor network does have a dark side to it, and of course this is the side that makes the news more often.
Tor is used for sharing of illegal content whether that is media with copyright or material of an illegal sexual nature. It is also used for sharing information that maybe sensitive to certain countries or particular people allowing people to circumvent usual routes and authorities. Things such as money laundering can be carried out across the network.
The Tor Project however have a valid point for anyone who thinks that the network is only being used for criminal activity
“Criminals could in theory use Tor, but they already have better options, and it seems unlikely that taking Tor away from the world will stop them from doing their bad things. At the same time, Tor and other privacy measures can fight identity theft, physical crimes like stalking, and so on”
Does it do anything good?
Well the anonymity is useful. A good example of this is whistleblower Edward Snowden who used the Tor network to release documents about the NSA and GCHQ. Other whistleblowers and activist groups also use the network without the fear of being found out.
Victims of domestic violence are turning to Tor to keep their identities hidden until they are comfortable on coming out; being able to reach out to social workers and charities for help, but without saying who you are can be a difficult first step.
Other types of people that the Tor Project website say use them are general families who want to protect their family, businesses, media, military and law enforcement who all want to keep information confidential.
Is it totally secure?
No, Tor only protects the transport of the data. Someone monitoring your network and the incoming traffic at the destination could statistically work out the circuit, and if you fill in information on a website saying who you are then again your anonymity is lost.
In essence it’s not perfect, but if after the news of the NSA and GCHQ reportedly monitoring our online activity makes you concerned then perhaps the Tor Project is a good option to attempt staying safer when online.
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