The Onion Router
The Tor Project operates a group of volunteer-operated internet servers which take messages from internet users and then forwards them to the intended internet website. Typically, an internet website will know the IP address and characteristics of each user. However, with Tor, the internet website thinks that the Tor server is the internet user, when in fact, the Tor server forwards the information back to the actual user without disclosing the identifying data to the website. The Tor Project also provides software including the Tor web browser, Orbot (which provides Tor for Android devices), and Tails (an operating system that is preconfigured to operate Tor safely).
Tor is an acronym derived from the original software project name The Onion Router. Tor makes it hard to track internet activity of specific users. Tor is used by a wide variety of people for both legal and illegal purposes. Tor has been used to establish online black markets and to conduct internet gambling. It has also helped oppressed people hide their identity online and allows them to more safely speak out against tyrannical governments.
The Tor project responds to the criminal use of Tor by saying: "So yes, criminals could in theory use Tor, but they already have better options, and it seems unlikely that taking Tor away from the world will stop them from doing their bad things. At the same time, Tor and other privacy measures can fight identity theft, physical crimes like stalking, and so on"
In 2014, the Russian government offered a $111,000 contract to "study the possibility of obtaining technical information about users."
Tor was created to protect US intelligence online, and was originally made by a US Navy Seal. Development started in 1997 by DARPA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. However, in 2002 the Naval Research Laboratory released the code for Tor under a free license.
Even subsequent government studies have concluded that Tor is difficult to infiltrate, because the government would have to penetrate all three computers handling a particular message to be able to trace it back to its origin. Because the number of active Tor nodes is large, and the middle node is assigned at random, most of the node computers on a Tor network would have to be compromised for the privacy of the messages to be broken.
Various other aspects of the design of TOR make it even harder to penetrate. For instance, there are now frequently multiple middle nodes, spread across the globe, adding legal issues as well. The "exit node" can be anywhere in the world, as can the middle node, requiring any investigation to obtain warrants internationally. TOR also has "hidden services" which themselves connect to the internet via a TOR protocol. While a "hidden service" can still be hacked, each service must be hacked individually, ensuring that only sites with illegal content and a large audience are taken down.
Tor, however, has a few weaknesses that must be compensated by other programs. It is possible to prevent a computer accessing the network simply by censoring all known TOR IP's. To get around this, one must configure their TOR browser to access a "bridge", an uncensored IP that permits access to the TOR network. A TOR website, if breached, can also be programed to download malware that reveals the location of your computer, allowing law enforcement or other parties to find a user's location. Other weaknesses include various programs that take advantage of capabilities given to that type of program, such as a PDF installing extra software on a user's computer. Using antivirus software to protect against such malware is highly recommended. It is wise to remember that TOR is the software used by criminals of all stripes, none of whom are beyond committing crimes against other users.
- Tor Project Overview. Retrieved on February 8, 2016.
- Tor Project. Retrieved on February 8, 2016.
- Tor Project Abuse FAQ. Retrieved on February 8, 2016.
- "The Inside Story of Tor, the Best Internet Anonymity Tool the Government Ever Built", Bloomburg Business, January 23, 2014. Retrieved on February 29, 2016.