In the last week there have been numerous news stories about the US authorities catching the Dread Pirate Roberts, administrator of the notorious Silk Road and the articles have all mentioned the Silk Road as being part of the dark net or as part of Tor. This begs the question what is Tor?
Tor or The Onion Router is an free piece of software than lets you be anonymous online. Whenever you surf to a website or carry out almost any other activity online you can be identified and often tracked with relative ease. Tor is designed to break this easy tracking and allow true anonymity
So who made it?
Tor was originally funded by the US Navy and DARPA but has been independent since 2004 although the US and Swedish government still provide the bulk of its funding.
Why do I want to be anonymous?
Lots of reasons. The most obvious and the reason that the US government funds it is for dissidents and activists in repressive countries to be able to communicate with each other and report abuses. Media can use it to anonymously research and communicate with sources. Business can use it to research competition and for secure communication. On a more personal note it lets you communicate securely, bypass firewalls and act unmonitored.
Is it aactually secure?
Yes, probably. The Snowdon leaks have indicated that the NSA and GCHQ are actively trying to break Tor but as far as we can tell they have not managed to do so. The high profile Silk Road take down and less high profile Freedom Hosting server takedown did not directly attack Tor but used bugs in Firefox and mistakes in setup to find the administrators. If Tor is setup correctly it is probably secure.
A side note to this – its been confirmed that the NSA is routinely recording all Tor traffic. At the moment they cannot break it but it is possible that they would be able to do so at some point in the future and if they manage it then they may be able to back track and read and de anonymize the data they have collected.
How do I use it?
Go to the Tor Project website here and download the browser bundle for your operating system. This will run a free standing (i.e. not installed) version of the Tor software which includes its own copy of the Firefox browser. Once you have it running and have read the warnings you can browse near normal.
What’s a Tor service?
A Tor service is a website or computer within the Tor network. This can only be accessed by using Tor and as such is anonymous. The Silk Road was a good example of this. Tor services look like web addresses but have a .onion in like this one http://kpvz7ki2v5agwt35.onion/wiki/index.php/Main_Page which is (at the time of writing) to the Hidden Wiki – a well known list of available Tor services.
Should I use it?
If you want to be anonymous online Tor is by far the best option available at the moment. It can be slow and frustrating to use at times and complicated to configure but works well and is secure.