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The dream of anonymous web browsing - the Tor network

Sven Krumrey

Whenever we surf the web, we leave traces that not only help Google but also every site we visit learn a lot about us. Whether it's cookies, IP address analysis, the referrer URL (the site we visited before) or the powerful Google Analytics, we're constantly being watched. Anyone who disagrees is forced to resort to measures that may require lots of technical expertise. The Tor network is the easy solution. Read on to learn about its advantages and risks.

The power of the onion
The power of the onion

Tor stands for "The onion routing" and this provides a first clue as to the way it works. Like an onion that has multiple layers, surfing through Tor involves redirecting your traffic through various (usually three) Tor servers with encryption being used throughout the process. This makes it already a lot harder to trace your steps but on top of that, the set of servers used to relay your traffic gets switched every 10 minutes. If you then visit a site that accesses your IP address such as www.whatsmyip.org, you'll see the address of the most recent relay server while your machine's address will stay anonymous.

Complicated technology, easy handling

Using Tor is not a challenge. Windows users simply install the Tor application that comes bundled with a specially prepared Firefox. At launch, your prompted to confirm that you would like to access the Tor network and you'll then have to wait a few seconds before the connection is established and you can start browsing. If you're behind a proxy or another type of restricted access (unfortunately common place in a few countries) you'll be able to configure that also. After that, you'll be good to go and greeted by a page with a few tips and tricks.

Anonymous through 3 servers Anonymous through 3 servers
Browsing with Tor

One thing you'll notice right away: You won't be breaking any speed records with Tor. If you intend on watching, say, Youtube in high resolution, you'll be in for a lot of lag like in the old days. Traffic is routed through multiple servers, after all, and there's a lot of encryption involved, the price you must pay for anonymity. And while we're on the subject - everything feels different. Depending on the country the last server is located in you may see some sites in that language, i.e. French during my test runs. For security reasons, Flash is deactivated, Google is out of the question and has been replaced with DuckDuckGo. Amazon suddenly no longer remembers me and Facebook is trying to win me over as a new user - same old, same old!

The Tor browser

Mozilla Firefox has been extended to automatically connect to Tor and fitted with a couple of new security settings. With a single click you can now disable script execution entirely, assume a new identity (reconnects and wipes all browser user data) or adjust the level of security from low (good enough for most users) to high (practically everything is locked, blocked or disabled).

Anonymity vs. intelligence services

As you might have guessed, secret service members aren't the biggest fans of Tor. Quite the opposite, Tor users are often under general suspicion of using the software to hide illegal activities. Indeed, criminals are also using the network - but so do members of the political opposition all over the world and ordinary users like us that try to protect their privacy. This is why governments from various countries are regularly at loggerheads with Tor and other anonymity projects either restricting or trying to prevent access altogether.

Always listening: secret services around the world Always listening: secret services around the world
Total anonymity?

The degree of anonymity achieved through Tor is subject to heavy debate but you can certainly use it to spoil the idea of transparent web users (a dream harbored by Google and other big players). You can get away from the huge advertising and personalization industry but if the secret service was really after you, I wouldn't bet on the safety of Tor. The collaboration of various countries that host the majority of Tor servers furthermore threatens anonymity.

Need more Tor?

Naturally, Tor isn't exclusive to Windows systems and goes beyond simple web browsing. There's a messenger that employs maximum encryption for receiving and sending messages and Android users can rely on Orbot to access the Tor network and Orweb to browse its contents. Users of iOS 5.1 and higher may access Tor through the Onion Browser and there's multiple packages available for OS X and Linux users.

What I would like to know: How useful is anonymization to you and do you already use Tor, Anonymizer or similar tools? Would you be willing to give up the comfort of cookies and Google to protect your privacy?

Pic 1: Wikipedia; Pic 2: Ubuntuusers.com

Download: https://www.torproject.org/download/download-easy.html.en
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