As you scroll through Amazon, Ebay or Facebook you may think clicking ‘clear history’ will eradicate all evidence of that day’s browsing. However every ISP (Internet Service Provider) keeps a copy of each household’s browsing history. The technologically savvy reader will at this point scoff and exclaim that this is a legal requirement and permits the arrest of thousands of criminals, sex offenders and all round bad humans each year. While this is true, ISPs are then free to sell these records to any corporation willing to pay a big enough price. This essentially allows for corporations to see into the mind of a mass audience, checking their online shopping habits and allowing them to strategically place advertisements at the right time. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to invasion of privacy.
From the moment you’re given a laptop or smart phone or any device with an internet connection you’re told not to share private information online. Never post your age, your debit card details and perhaps most importantly, don’t post your home address. Amongst the myriad of profile options Facebook allows, it does not allow you to share your home address. But if your IP address isn’t hidden (as it isn’t on most devices) you could be tracked through that. IP stands for internet protocol and it is a string of numbers that pinpoint your location whilst using the internet, again tracking misusers. But this string of numbers isn’t just available to the government, it’s available to anyone who knows the process to obtain it. Through this they can essentially map your location. Scary, huh?
Transcending these first world problems of internet users concerns the safety of activists, whistleblowers and military field agents. Without using an anonymous browser, these people could be tracked and punished for their actions. With TOR they’re kept anonymous. In modern life the internet is an essential tool for everyday use. For some it’s their only form of communication. Without it certain vulnerable individuals may be left stranded. If their anonymity is compromised then they have nowhere to turn.
This is why TOR has become a popular method of browsing for those wishing to stay completely anonymous. TOR stands for ‘The Onion Router’ and is a network run by volunteers worldwide who use their own personal computers as relays. When people log onto a TOR network, their connection is run through several of these relays worldwide with the connection between each one covered to make them nearly impossible to trace. This means each time a TOR server is used, your IP address will be randomly assigned as somewhere else in the world. As TOR networking isn’t illegal, the random IP address cannot be persecuted for the actions of the TOR network user.
For democratic countries it allows people to blog their unpopular opinions without fear or repercussions from their peers. There have been many examples of people losing their jobs over perfectly legal things they posted online. For dictatorial countries, TOR networking is used extensively. China’s internet censorship, dubbed The Great Firewall of China, is comprehensive and total. Twitter, Facebook and all other forms of social media are blocked to keep evidence of China’s cruel ways within the borders of China. Through TOR networks, the rest of the world is slowly being enlightened to the malicious and sometimes brutal ways in which China controls its citizens.
For journalists working abroad, TOR networking can become essential, particularly for war journalists. Often military officials abuse their position of power. Out in the middle of a war-zone, it is often possible to commit heinous war crimes and any objecting spectators could end up dead. War journalists perform as mediators by informing the rest of the world of the acts committed in a war-zone.
However TOR networking isn’t all enlightenment and freedom. As with all cases of anonymity, human nature wanders towards misdemeanour.
TOR networking has become infamous for the black market. Websites such as Silk Road are only accessible through a TOR network and supply drugs, guns and other items of black market to anyone willing to search for them. As the process is anonymous, the site even allows for home delivery. Furthermore, child pornography and other deeply disturbing media is readily available through Tor networks. As the network is run by volunteers, they simply don’t have the resources to combat illicit material.
Doubts have also been cast over the safety of the network. As the connection runs through several PCs it can be compromised and hacked as TOR themselves have agreed. Furthermore the network isn’t as anonymous as it was first thought. The final relay computer can still be monitored and sensitive information can still emerge from it. The information can’t be traced back to the source, but nevertheless your information can still be obtained.
TOR networking is a highly complex system which, unfortunately, has no official dedicated staffing. If the network was funded and controlled then it could be deemed safe but for now it’s definitely wise to not use the network unless you’re one-hundred per cent sure you know what you’re doing. As for the everyday Joe, you’re safe enough using password encrypted networks and making sure your passwords are relatively complex.