Tor’ing the Internet


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of Intel Free Press.

Ever since the initial Edward Snowden revelations in June 2013, the public has been continuously updated on the different ways in which the NSA pried into their digital data. By peeling back the many layers of the once-secret documents, media reports have highlighted how personal records such as phone calls, long-distance internet connections, emails, facial recognition photos, and World of Warcraft accounts were penetrated.

However, in the expansive midst of exposures regarding the NSA’s successful spying tactics, one file from 2012 illustrated certain platforms in which the agency faced “major problems” in extracting digital data. A specific web browser was thus designated: Tor.

Tor, which stands for “The Onion Routing” program, functions through an international network of anonymous volunteers who direct the routing of internet traffic. The layered process conceals Tor users’ online activities. Originally developed and implemented by the US Naval Research Laboratory, the system’s strata act as a cryptic shield that blocks outside observers from seeing what sites users visit and their physical whereabouts.

The Guardian illustrated in late 2013 that few people outside of the tech world were familiar with Tor prior to learning about the NSA files Snowden leaked. Unsurprisingly, when Snowden gave his speech about the future of the internet during South by Southwest 2014, he recommended that listeners start using Tor to thwart unwanted spying.

But beyond whistleblowers and tech-savvy individuals, different parties use Tor for different reasons. Reporters Without Borders encourages journalists to utilize the browser to circumvent censors. Individuals who go online in countries with strict internet censorship use Tor to evade the regulations (although Belarus is working to ban the platform). Librarians in Massachusetts installed the browser onto library computers last year so that the government would not access public data.

Tor gained a negative reputation because it was the former browsing platform for Silk Road, the online drug trade, and was notably used for concealing other illicit and illegal activities. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor Project make it a point to dispel the association, arguing that criminals would break the law regardless of what internet browser they use.

Tor Ekeland, a NYC lawyer who specializes in internet and business law, tells BTR that he and his firm have been using the Tor browser for years. He explains that despite the fact that people still harbor negative views toward Tor and think it’s something “exotic,” the platform is actually relatively simple to figure out.

“[Tor] seems to have, to some people, the reputation of being this mysterious, crazy thing,” Ekeland says. “It’s just basically a web browser that protects your information and allows you to browse anonymously.”

Ekeland continues that he’s surprised that most law firms don’t use Tor and other encryption software to secure the confidential information with which they work. Nevertheless, he admits that Tor does have its technological limitations and there are times when Mozilla Firefox works better.

As such, the Tor Project informs people who want to download the software that they will have to change some of their browsing habits. Tor users are told not to go on torrent sites, enable or install browser plugins, open documents downloaded on the browser while online, or use bridges. Logging into HTTPS versions of websites is also necessary for anonymity purposes.

In addition, websites that internet users access through Tor may ask for their information. A writer for LinuxBSDos reviewed the Tor browser after using it for three months. Some intercepting factors the writer illustrated included how certain websites tried to “extract HTML5 canvas image data” in attempts to identify computers. The article’s author also encountered situations where websites would redirect the interface to reCAPTCHA loops and having to type in passwords to pass these barriers.

Just recently, Twitter announced their plans for new users who set up accounts through Tor to provide their telephone numbers. Twitter will then add these numbers to their database automatically. Tech Crunch reports that it is unclear whether Twitter is exercising this procedure to crack down on Tor users specifically, or if they plan to ask everyone on all browsers for their numbers and that Tor is just a preliminary test.

Although the right to anonymous internet browsing is an important value to many, the layers of politics and practicalities are certainly part of the equation to finding true digital privacy.