If users want to prevent their own computer from keeping track of what they are doing on the Internet, most browsers offer options such as Chrome’s Incognito Mode and the simple Private Browsing Mode of Safari and Firefox. But what if a user wants to block people outside of their own computer from being able to access information about their identity and location through the Internet?
The creators of the encryption and routing tool Tor have provided anyone with the interest or need a simple and effective solution. Tor is free software that, when configured correctly with a browser or other Internet program, connects users to the Internet through a system of open networks to keep their information encrypted and anonymous. For the causes of privacy and personal freedom, it protects against network surveillance and analysis of users’ web traffic, revolutionizing the potential of confidential business action, private communication, and even security of the state.
Tor works by utilizing a network of routers termed ‘onions,’ which is why it is often referred to as the onion network and is represented by an onion logo. When a surfer makes a connection over the Internet, their information is first encrypted, and then sent on a random journey, springing rapidly from one onion router to the next. Each time the information arrives at a new router, the router only knows the IP address of where the information was last and its next destination. This means that by the time it reaches the end point, the actual IP address of the user has been long lost in the string of networks. The system also periodically re-encrypts the data as it bounces between routers, ensuring that the original sender cannot be tracked.
However, the powerful encryption and anonymity of Tor are only the beginning of its benefits, as these things open up the door to many previously impossible opportunities. The network has its own domain name, ‘.onion,’ with an address looking something like this: ‘example.onion’. These websites are only accessible on the Tor network, which keeps them totally private. There is a broad community now on Tor, with a wide array of websites, services, products, and opportunities that were rare if not nonexistent prior to such a network existing. In fact, there is a website accessible only through the network called The Hidden Wiki, which gives a non-exhaustive but rather lengthy and inclusive list of ‘.onion’ web addresses.
To make it easy, users can download a prepackaged bundle called TorBrowser, which comes with a Tor-configured version of the Opera browser that is ready to connect incognito. Alternatively, they also offer the program by itself and helpful instructions on how to arrange it with various browsers as well as other programs like email and instant messaging. Recently, versions of Tor have even become available for mobile devices.
While Tor can be a fantastic tool for defending against surveillance and analysis on the web, it is not without error or loophole. If not configured or used correctly, users may still be left somewhat traceable if someone really wants to get their information. However, for the average user it is more than sufficient for providing anonymity, as well as a new and innovative experience of the World Wide Web.