Tuesday, 23 October 2012 11:34

Browse Internet Anonymously and Protect Your Online Privacy: Use Tor Browser

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internet surveillance

Protecting our privacy online is one of the hardest task to achieve in today's widely inter-connected world. All the browsers, like Google Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, etc., we use today are way advanced and keep track of your browsing history, for various purposes. Some websites track your online activity to serve better, targeted ads, or suggest news and sites that you may like and to make your whole browsing experience seamless. While there are good things for letting some trusted websites to track your online activities, there are also too many bad things, because there are billions of websites around, out of which, a huge percentage of sites tend to be malicious.

Most of us tend to neglect the importance of safeguarding our personal information. It is in fact more valuable than you might think. There are companies who collect various data from your online activities and study your habits so that they can convince you to buy their products or do things online, that you may not have done otherwise.

Imagine this: a website that tracks and collect everything you do on their site including your location, IP address, phone number, email address, social security number, credit card info, etc. etc. and sell it to a third party and make money? Or someone else tracks your online activities and stalk you in real life?

Or imagine if you are a journalist and you want to communicate safely with some whistle-blowers and not to be tracked by anyone? Or if you're using the Internet for competitive analysis or you are an individual who wants to access some websites that are blocked by the local ISPs? This article is for people like you, who want to maintain anonymity online and stay safe and protect privacy.

The following image from The Future of Privacy Forum illustrates how and where your data travels when you use Internet.

where your data goes before you even click

What is Tor?

Tor (short form for The Onion Router) is a free software to help you defend against network surveillance. It is a vast array of interconnected virtual tunnels to allow people to browse the Internet safely and anonymously. Tor works in a similar fashion to Proxy server, if you are already familiar with using Proxy to bypass ISP restrictions. But there is a major difference between Tor and the normal Proxy servers, which is explained in the next section of this post.

Tor comes as a browser package bundle and uses Firefox Extended Support Release (ESR). There is no installation required. It works on Windows, Mac and Linux machines. It can be run from a USB thumbdrive and can be used from anywhere where you can use this USB thumbdrive, to protect your privacy.

How is Tor Different From a Typical Proxy Server?

A typical proxy is setup as a server to act as a middle man between you and the website or service you are trying to access. The traffic that passes through the proxy server can be seen by the proxy service provider, and they know who you are where you are from. Unless you trust this provider, using proxy is not as secure as we think.

Whereas, when you use Tor, your traffic travels through at least 3 different servers, using separate layer of encryption, before it reaches the destination and returns you what you requested (a web page or an online service). Due to this separate layer of encryption happening at each servers in the Tor network that your traffic travels, Tor does not know even what you are sending, but it merely relays your traffic. For e.g. If you request for a page from wikipedia dot org, your request will be encrypted and send to an anonymous node (computer) in the Tor network, and then to the 2nd node after encrypting again, then to the 3rd, and finally to Wikipedia. Wikipedia thinks that the request originally came from the 3rd server, never knowing the real origin, which is your computer.

How Does Tor Work?

As mentioned earlier, Tor is an open network of interconnected computers from all over the world. These computers are usually provided by volunteers who wants to make Tor network larger and effective. You can do that too, click here to find out more. Now, back to how it works. Imagine Alice wants to browse a webpage and she is using Tor. The browser fetches a list of Tor nodes (computers) from a directory server. Alice's computer then picks a random route which will eventually lead to the destination server where the webpage or the service is hosted. The traffic travels through at least 3 Tor nodes, completely encrypted. The 3rd node then contacts the destination server and processes the request, and passes back the requested page or service to Alice's computer.

Alice remains unknown to the destination server, because to the destination server, the request for the webpage or the service came from the 3rd node in the Tor network.

Now, the question could be, whether the 1st node (computer) knows you (Alice)? According to Tor, possibly yes, the 1st node can see your traffic. But it still can't interpret who you are or what you are doing over it. It will simply know that your IP address is using Tor, and nothing else, because the traffic is encrypted.

Next question could be, if the 3rd node can see who you are? Again, possibly yes, but this node also can't interpret who you are, but only knows the destination.

The following illustration gives you a clearer picture:

how tor works

how tor works

How to Get Tor for your Computer?

Tor comes as a browser bundle and can be downloaded free from here. No installation is required. All you have to do is to download this bundle, and extract it on your computer or from a USB thumbdrive.

downloading tor browser bundle

Once extracted, you will see an executable file, "Start Tor Browser.exe". Double clicking on that file will start Vidalia Control Panel. Vidalia will try to look for a list of Tor nodes and establishes connection with the Tor network, and also starts up the Tor browser. The browser will show you a message saying, "Congratulations. Your browser is configured to use Tor.", if the connection is successful.

downloading tor browser bundle

downloading tor browser bundle

If you have downloaded and extracted the package on a USB thumbdrive, you can use Tor on any computer where you can insert the thumbdrive.

Who are Behind Tor?

Tor project was originally sponsored by US Naval Research Laboratory. It is now run by the Tor Project, an education / research and a non-profit organization based in the US, mainly supported by the US State Department, National Science Foundation, etc. It has few employees and many volunteers. The core person behind Tor Project is Jacob Appelbaum, who is a famous security researcher and a hacker. He was then employed by the University of Washington. He was also behind the Wikileaks.

Who uses Tor?

Tor is used by people like you who want to protect the online identity and keep your online activities secured and may be also want to access some web pages blocked by your local ISPs. Tor is also used by US military, researchers, journalists, activists, families to safeguard their children online, law enforcement authorities, IT Professionals, etc. The use of Tor is legal in most countries, but NOT THE MIUSE of Tor or the Internet.

Finally, Please Be Ethical and Do Not Use Tor or Similar Services to Harm Anyone

While Tor is intended for protecting your identity and keeping you anonymous online, it is NOT intended for misusing your anonymity. Tor or any other similar services or product is not intended and should not be used to cause harm to anyone, intentionally or unintentionally. Hope you treat whatever the information provided here justly and in accordance to your local law and regulations.

Related Reading

You can read more about some of the related topics in the following webpages.

To Know Commonly Used Methods of Tracking:

    1. HTTP Cookies
    2. Web Beacon, Tracking bug, Web bug, etc.
    3. Sniffing through your Browsing History
    4. Tracking via Mobile Phones / GPS

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