The Silk Road and NSA spying may be old news, but The Onion Router (Tor) continues to generate interest among Internet users seeking online anonymity. Tor isn’t all upside, though. As I found out, you pay a price for privacy.
To put things in context, Tor hides your online activity, plain and simple. It covers your tracks, including your browsing history, identity and physical location. Tor also anonymizes the websites you visit and their operators.
While such activity might sound inherently nefarious, remember that Tor technology also grants anonymity to people fighting tyranny, oppression and other injustices. And for the record, the Tor Project was initially funded by the U.S. government.
Given the many legitimate, compelling use cases, it may be time to ask if Tor is right for you. Well, I’ve put Tor through its paces and come up with my top five tips to help you decide.
1. Tor can’t ensure absolute security. The Tor network passes web transactions through a series of participating servers and uses randomly generated, non-readable URL addresses that ultimately hide client and server communications from unintended eyes. And as the number of Tor users increases, the odds of someone breaching Tor-based communications becomes even lower.
So in theory, the Tor network is secure. However, for the typical internet user, accessing sites on the “open web” can still be vulnerable. At some point, a user will exit Tor via an “exit node” and access a site or server in the open web. If that site is not encrypted (HTTPS), the user’s communications can be compromised.
2. Tor requires a leap of faith. Tor Project makes it quite easy to setup up Tor. Download packages, including the Tor Browser, are available for Windows, Mac and GNU/Linux. Tor is also supported on Android devices and iOS devices via the Covert Browser.
When I was installing Tor, my Mac complained that Tor was from an “unidentified developer” and refused to accept the download. I was able to proceed, though, after disabling Apple Gatekeeper. I simply had to trust that I was installing genuine Tor code and not a hijacked .exe that was actually carrying malware.
3. Tor is slow. Tor sends traffic through several, random “relay nodes” before reaching the destination node. Those random relays make it very difficult to determine where the request is coming from or who is making it. But they also make it very difficult to quickly move around online.
Simply put, the Tor user experience is slow, and many users will find that Tor imposes an unacceptable hit on productivity. And consider this: Tor will only get slower as the network of users grows.
4. Tor blocks apps. Using the Tor Browser in conjunction with the Tor software is the only way to ensure complete privacy and anonymity. However, the Tor Browser blocks plugins such as Flash and QuickTime because they can be used to view your IP address.
The Tor Project actually recommends that you do not install any plugins. For example, YouTube videos are blocked by the Tor Browser. This plugin restriction means that many of the applications that you may be using today can’t be securely accessed.
5. Tor may invite unwanted attention. Some that say Tor users get more unwanted attention simply because governments are more suspicious of anybody who would use Tor! While we know governments are concerned about Tor use, we don’t know their strategy with respect to Tor users. Compared to typical Internet users, Tor users may receive more scrutiny from government agencies.
Conceptually, Tor provides strong privacy protection. And all indications suggest that the core security remains intact, even with recent government successes against Tor-based sites like Silk Road. But there is also evidence that the NSA and other government agencies around the world are hard at work trying to crack the Tor network. In fact, many believe they have made progress in doing just that, especially on the fringes where users are entering or leaving the Tor network.
Even assuming the integrity of the Tor network, it does come with some baggage for the average user. The Tor Project even offers the caveat, “You need to change some of your habits, as some things won’t work exactly as you are used to.” So what’s your decision? Do you use Tor, or do you plan to give it a try?
The original article/video can be found at Taking Stock of Tor: Top 5 Tips for Using The Onion Router