We live in an era of free-flowing data, where any person with an Internet connection has seemingly all the information in the world at their fingertips. Yet, while the Internet has greatly expanded the ability to share knowledge, it has also made issues of privacy more complicated, with many worrying their own personal information, including their activity on the Internet, may be observed without their permission.
Not only are state actors able to track an individual’s online movements, but corporations have also become bolder in using that information to target us with ads. Unseen eyes are everywhere.
A browser called Tor is a potential solution, although like many underground phenomena on the Internet, it is poorly understood, shrouded in the sort of technological mysticism that people often ascribe to things like bitcoins.
Tor is software that allows users to browse the Web anonymously. Developed by the Tor Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for anonymity on the internet, Tor was originally called The Onion Router because it uses a technique called onion routing to conceal information about user activity.
The Internet is, at its most basic, a series of connections between computers across great distance. In the beginning, computers were isolated, unable to communicate with each other. As the tech got more advanced, engineers were able to physically link computers together, creating early networks. These networks still required the computers to be relatively near each other, however. Eventually, advances in fibre optics enabled networks to connect across continents, allowing for the Internet to be born.
Some computers house the data stored on the Internet, including web pages like Google. These computers are known as “servers.” A device used to access this information, such as your cellphone or computer, is known as a client. The transmission lines that connect clients to servers come in a variety of forms, whether fibre optic cables or wireless signals, but they are all connections.
Although clients initiate connections to get information from servers, the flow goes both ways.
Data is exchanged across the Internet in packets. These packets contain information about the sender and the destination, and certain individuals and organizations can use this data to monitor who is doing certain things or accessing certain information on the Web.
It is not just the server that can see this data. Traffic analysis is big business, and many organizations, both private and governmental, can monitor the messages flowing between clients and servers. How, then, does Tor keep the user’s information secret?
There are two key aspects to onion routing. First, the Tor network is composed of volunteers who use their computers as “nodes.” As mentioned earlier, during normal browsing, information travels across the Internet in packets. When a Tor user visits a website, however, their packets do not simply travel to that server. Instead, Tor creates a path through randomly assigned nodes, which the packet will follow before reaching the server.
The other important aspect of onion routing is how the packets are constructed. Normally, a packet will include the sender’s address and the destination, not unlike a letter. When using Tor, the packet is wrapped in successive layers of packets, like a nesting doll.
In keeping with the ideological aims of the Tor Project, Tor is free to use. Simply download and install the browser, which is a modified version of Firefox available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. For mobile browsing, there is also an Android app called Orbot.
Please note that while the Tor browser is already configured to work properly, users on networks with firewalls or other security systems may experience difficulties. Moreover, careless Internet usage can still compromise one’s anonymity. Tor’s website has a comprehensive list of things to avoid doing while using the browser, as well as fixes for any problems that arise. Visit www.torproject.org to get started.