The Tor network is a group of volenteer-operated servers that allows people to improve their privacy and security on the Internet. Tor’s users employ this network by connecting through a series of virtual tunnels rather than making a direct connection, thus allowing both organizations and individuals to share information over public networks without compromising their privacy. Along the same line, Tor is an effective censorship circumvention tool, allowing its users to reach otherwise blocked destinations or content. Tor can also be used as a building block for software developers to create new communication tools with built-in privacy features.
The Tor Browser is a web browser that anonymizes your web traffic using the Tor network, making it easy to protect your identity online. If you’re investigating a competitor, researching an opposing litigant in a legal dispute, or just think it’s creepy for your ISP or the government to know what websites you visit, then the Tor Browser might be the right solution for you.
- The solution: a distributed, anonymous network
Tor helps to reduce the risks of both simple and sophisticated traffic analysis by distributing your transactions over several places on the Internet, so no single point can link you to your destination. The idea is similar to using a twisty, hard-to-follow route in order to throw off somebody who is tailing you — and then periodically erasing your footprints. Instead of taking a direct route from source to destination, data packets on the Tor network take a random pathway through several relays that cover your tracks so no observer at any single point can tell where the data came from or where it’s going.
To create a private network pathway with Tor, the user’s software or client incrementally builds a circuit of encrypted connections through relays on the network. The circuit is extended one hop at a time, and each relay along the way knows only which relay gave it data and which relay it is giving data to. No individual relay ever knows the complete path that a data packet has taken. The client negotiates a separate set of encryption keys for each hop along the circuit to ensure that each hop can’t trace these connections as they pass through.
Once a circuit has been established, many kinds of data can be exchanged and several different sorts of software applications can be deployed over the Tor network. Because each relay sees no more than one hop in the circuit, neither an eavesdropper nor a compromised relay can use traffic analysis to link the connection’s source and destination. Tor only works for TCP streams and can be used by any application with SOCKS support.
For efficiency, the Tor software uses the same circuit for connections that happen within the same ten minutes or so. Later requests are given a new circuit, to keep people from linking your earlier actions to the new ones.
- Staying anonymous
Tor can’t solve all anonymity problems. It focuses only on protecting the transport of data. You need to use protocol-specific support software if you don’t want the sites you visit to see your identifying information. For example, you can use Tor Browser while browsing the web to withhold some information about your computer’s configuration.
Also, to protect your anonymity, be smart. Don’t provide your name or other revealing information in web forms. Be aware that, like all anonymizing networks that are fast enough for web browsing, Tor does not provide protection against end-to-end timing attacks: If your attacker can watch the traffic coming out of your computer, and also the traffic arriving at your chosen destination, he can use statistical analysis to discover that they are part of the same circuit.
- · The future of Tor
Providing a usable anonymizing network on the Internet today is an ongoing challenge. We want software that meets users’ needs. We also want to keep the network up and running in a way that handles as many users as possible. Security and usability don’t have to be at odds: As Tor’s usability increases, it will attract more users, which will increase the possible sources and destinations of each communication, thus increasing security for everyone. We’re making progress, but we need your help. Please consider running a relay or volunteering as a developer.
Ongoing trends in law, policy, and technology threaten anonymity as never before, undermining our ability to speak and read freely online. These trends also undermine national security and critical infrastructure by making communication among individuals, organizations, corporations, and governments more vulnerable to analysis. Each new user and relay provides additional diversity, enhancing Tor’s ability to put control over your security and privacy back into your hands.