Hello my fellow privacy and security minded friends. In this week’s blogpost I am going to introduce you to a less known concept that gives you a bigger deal of privacy on the Net. The Onion Router network, or TOR for short, has been around for quite sometime, but it does not have a big share of attention among ordinary Internet users.
So what is TOR and why should you care to use it?
Whenever you visit a website from your favorite browser you are actually establishing a direct connection to the server, where the website is hosted. Yes, you can use SSL to encrypt your traffic (remember the little padlock icon in your browser we mentioned in my previous blog post?), however although it provides security of the data you transmit it does not provide privacy. I will explain in short what I mean by that. When establishing a connection to a web server in essence you are sharing two things with each packet you transmit: an IP header and the data itself. When you use secure browsing with SSL you encrypt the data, this can be messages, e-mails, pictures, streaming music and videos or whatever you actually do on the Net, but the IP header is still visible. What the IP header does is provide information about the source and destination of the respective packet. In plain english, it holds your IP address and the IP address of the destination. If you think this is not a big issue consider the following scenario. By knowing your IP address and the IP address of the websites you visit you are a target for different parties like Marketing companies, which serve you ads based on your activities on the web, you are easily trackable by the more tech savvy Internet users who can conduct the so called “traffic analysis” and actually try to do all sort of nasty things to you. Of course there are a lot of different ways to remedy this and today I am going to introduce you to TOR.
TOR was developed in the mid-1990s for the security needs of the US Navy. After they released the code for the software in 2004 numerous foundations started funding the TOR project, which is being developed and maintained even today, by a research education non-profit organization called The TOR Project based in Massachusetts, USA. You can look at the TOR network as a set of nodes all over the world, which are used to re-route your traffic to your final destination so you are not easily tracked. So how does it work?
When using Tor to browse you are called a client. When you want to visit a website you type its address in the TOR browser (more on that a bit later) and obtain a list of TOR nodes from a server and a temporary route through random TOR nodes is created. This route is valid for only 10 minutes after which it is erased and tracking cannot be done after that. It is important to mention that the connection between each node is encrypted. Another good quality of the TOR nodes is that each single node does not have an idea of the original source and destination, it only knows the address of the node, from which the packets are coming and the one of the node where it sends the packets. This way a compromised node cannot be used to spy on your privacy and look at your traffic. After the 10-minute route expires automatically a new route is randomly created.
So how can you use TOR?
The easiest way to use TOR is to download the TOR Browser, which is specifically developed to use the TOR network on the basis of Firefox. Just navigate to the official download page, follow the instructions and install the browser. There are other ways to use the TOR network, but I am not going to discuss them in this post. If you are more curious about learning the different applications of TOR leave a comment below and I will cover them in a later post 🙂
If TOR is so great then why not everybody is using it? Why isn’t it more popular?
Although that we would like to think that when using TOR everything is sunshine and happiness there are several drawbacks when using it. Using TOR alone is not enough to protect yourself. When it comes to security and privacy, a combination of different protection must be used. Take our example of how Tor works. If you are to connect to a website that does not use SSL you have a weak spot – the end-node of the TOR network. The connection from your computer through all the nodes may be encrypted and secure, but if you do not connect to a secure website then the connection between the end-node (or exit node as it is frequently called) and the website will not be encrypted. Therefore it is highly recommended to connect to secure websites regardless if you are using TOR or not. However, the combination of using TOR and establishing a secure connection to a website that has SSL should provide you with a large dose of anonymity and security of your browsing habbits.
Another drawback of TOR is speed. Anonymity comes at a price. When you are sending all this network data through the nodes within the TOR network you must accept the fact that some of the nodes are likely to have slower Internet connections. As these nodes are randomly selected from all over the world it may happen that you go through a node with a considerably slower connection.. So in the end the highest speed you get is the maximum speed of the node with the slowest Internet connection from the TOR nodes that make up your route.
So who uses TOR and is TOR a good choice for you?
Although it has its limitations TOR can be a very valuable tool when it comes to privacy. Consider people, whose government has put access restriction to certain websites (i.e. China and Facebook) or your Internet Service Provider has denied you access to certain websites. TOR makes them able to view content on the Internet freely. Or for example journalists who can contact their sources in an anonymous fashion to protect their identity. The list of examples can be quite long. Fortunately the TOR Project team has made a very neat list of possible target audiences and how they would use Tor. There are other applications to TOR, but they will not be covered now as they are outside the scope of this week’s blogpost. If you are willing to protect your privacy you and are OK with making a few sacrifices like not watching your favorite cat videos on Youtube then why not give TOR a try? And if you do share your experience or if have a recommedation please leave a comment below. 🙂
As always, stay safe and stay tuned for my next blogpost on how to stay secure on the Net! 🙂