State of the Arts for July/August/September 2017: Tor, the Onion Network
(One of my Montana Arts Council State of the Arts Newspaper Tech Talk Columns)
Last issue I wrote about Ghostery, an add-on to web browsers that helps block tracking of your browsing by advertisers as well as the websites themselves. That tracking results in lots of personal information being collected by ad servers and websites, demonstrated in one respect by ads that follow you from site to site.
But your web usage is still tracked by webservers and other parts of the internet’s structure and by your internet or phone service provider, because every time you get on the internet, your device has a unique, numerical address called an IP (Internet Protocol) number. You have an IP address everywhere you connect: at home, office, on your smart phone and on the free wi-fi at the coffee house.
That IP address can be used to track you, even on your phone, when the IP can change due to location, or on free-wi-fi, with lots of other users. If you have fiber or high-speed cable to your home or office, you likely have a fixed IP that never changes and is trackable to your door.
So what happens if you really want to be private and hide your true IP address? One way is to use a web browser that provides anonymity, such as the Tor browser. The Tor browser leverages the way the internet already works, but in a clever way to provide that IP anonymity.
The internet uses thousands of routers and servers all over the world to get your data back and forth, all selected by the internet itself to be most efficient in terms of speed, and all those servers and routers record your IP address at each step in the process.
But the Tor browser sends your data through random volunteer-operated servers all over the world before it gets to its final destination, and those volunteer routers strip your original IP address – and each subsequent IP – at each step in the routing process.
That’s the reason for the Tor logo being an onion; using Tor is like using the internet like an onion – all the layers peel back to show yet another layer of routers and servers, all hiding the core, which is your real IP address.
The Tor browser can be used as a stand alone browser on your desktop or phone, and can be run from a USB drive on a public computer. To be even safer, use Tor on a laptop on free wi-fi away from your home or office. But you don’t want to use Tor all the time or for sharing large files, as using that amount of bandwidth will break the volunteer-run service for everyone. Check https://www.torproject.org for downloads and instructions.
Journalists, activists and everyday people use Tor to help protect their IP addressees and identities. Tor is not perfect privacy, which is very difficult to pulll off. But Tor is very good, and very easy to use.