What is Tor, and Why Do We Need It?

What was once disregarded as paranoia, is now a very real phenomenon. Revelations made by Whistle-Blowers such as Edward Snowden, regarding the activities of government-funded agencies such as the NSA, has shed light on the issue of mass internet monitoring for the sake of national security. Anonymous browsing may not be something that the casual web user cares very much about. But it has developed a loyal and dedicated following among more cautious web surfers who are concerned about government agencies and corporations “spying” on their internet activity. Activity that many are lead to believe, is private. Web developers in Toronto and abroad (particularly in the U.S. and UK), are also jumping on the bandwagon, building websites hosted on servers whose activity can be hidden from lw enforcement agencies.

At the moment, the most popular tool for masking your internet usage is Tor. Tor (or ‘The Onion Router’) was initially a worldwide network of servers developed with the U.S. Navy that enabled people to browse the internet anonymously. In the past few years, the system now has a not-for-profit organization supporting it; an organization dedicated to the development of online privacy tools.

As described by Thorin Klosowski of Lifehacker, the Tor network helps to disguise your identity and browser history by moving your traffic across multiple servers, encrypting the traffic along the way. What’s interesting about a network such as Tor is that its effectiveness in anonymizing your activities is contingent upon the number of people using the Tor network at any given time. Because Tor “hides” you among other users on the network, the more “populous and diverse the user base for Tor is, the more your anonymity will be protected.”

As described on Tor’s Overview page:

Tor is a network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet. It also enables software developers to create new communication tools with built-in privacy features. Tor provides the foundation for a range of applications that allow organizations and individuals to share information over public networks without compromising their privacy.

The network is accessible by downloading the free Tor browser, with a version also available for Android smartphones. The browser is predictably slow and unresponsive at times, because of the travelling (number of relays) your browser queries must endure. In addition, there are issues with certain sites such as YouTube, whose videos cannot be played. Using this browser does come with a few major concessions.

Tor’s servers also have the capacity to host web sites accessible only by other Tor users. In the past year or so, you may have come across a blog article or two discussing the website Silk Road, what can be described as the Amazon for everything and anything illegal, was one of the more high profile Tor hosted websites.

Are you a user of the Tor browser? Share with us some of your experiences using this browser below!

Jason Quintal | December 11, 2015

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