This isn’t to say that you’re doing anything illegal or deplorable, but let’s be honest, pretty much everyone does at least ten different things online that they aren’t too proud of. Enter TOR; the anonymous web browser whose popularity has seen a recent resurgence thanks to the NSA revelations.
Ever since the general public found out that the NSA is secretly spying on pretty much everything they do, people have understandably been a bit on edge. After all, it’s more than a little disconcerting knowing that someone may be listening in on your phone calls, reading your private text messages or God forbid, monitoring exactly what you’ve been doing on the internet.
TOR, which stands for The Onion Router, has actually been around for quite a few years now. The system was unveiled back in 2002 and works as a combination of software that you install on your computer, and a large network of routers through which your Internet traffic can bounce, allowing it to remain anonymous. The company isn’t capitalizing on your paranoia either; it’s actually a non-profit, open, volunteer-based project.
TOR allows its users to remain anonymous by always keeping them moving, like a shell game that keeps the world from knowing the truly unhealthy amount of cat videos you’re really watching. At a minimum, TOR uses three servers to bounce your traffic around; with each having its own separate and unique encryption. Only the first server your information hits knows where it’s coming from, and only the last server it hits knows where it’s going. In between, one or more servers simply pass the information along. This means that someone would have to compromise every server your traffic hits, which could be located all over the world, in order to spy on you.
Many argue against TOR, saying that by using a network which allows you to remain anonymous, you are outing yourself at someone who has something to hide. Before the recent NSA scandal hit, TOR had a bit of a reputation as a tool used by those who were pirating content or involved in other illegal activities. Now, if the average Joe simply sleeps better at night knowing the government isn’t watching everything he does, he also has to wonder if making the switch to TOR (thereby disappearing from traditional browsers), will actually flag him as someone the government should be watching even more closely. It’s kind of a privacy Catch-22.
Using TOR doesn’t necessarily mean you’re completely invulnerable to monitoring. Because you’re usually using the same servers, whether in your home or your workplace (either way, you’re probably spending the majority of your time on Facebook), you can still be traced if say, some massive government agency really wanted to target you in particular. So if Max Anderson popped up on the NSA’s radar because he was illegally selling trained capuchin monkey butlers out of his home, switching to TOR wouldn’t necessarily stop the NSA from bringing down his sordid ring of primate exploitation.
For as complicated as it may come across, TOR is actually super-simple to use. The software can be downloaded from the TOR project home page and upon installation you’re pretty much ready to go. Once started, the software finds and establishes a secure connection between you and a random TOR router and poof… you’ve disappeared. Now anything you do on your normal browser uses this secure connection, and no website or anyone watching will know who or where you are unless you tell them.