Tinkering With Tor: Anonymous Web Has Promise, Perils, Privacy - Technologist
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Tinkering With Tor: Anonymous Web Has Promise, Perils, Privacy

Welcome to an Internet with no rules, no identities, and no certainties. Everything is encrypted, multiple times, and is allegedly as anonymous as you want it to be. You can do, say, or find anything, and we mean anything on the dark side of the Web.

It's called Tor, a project began by the United States Navy to secure their communication, which has spread to the civilian sector. It is a favorite of anyone who needs anonymity, from illicit drug traders and child pornographers, to journalists and political dissidents, and since August 19, according to Ars Technica, usage has doubled to over 1.2 million users.

Curious? Read on.

Welcome to 1992

My first thought upon installing and running TorBrowser, a customized version of Mozilla Firefox with all of the necessary encryption and anonymmization goodies, was a sense of deja vu. This is the Internet, before the Internet became a thing.

Pages load at a tortoise-like pace, and are often crudely constructed, either because the creator only cares about passing along information, or because modern layouts just won't load as fast. There are no functional search engines, since every .onion page (the equivalent of a .html address) is unlisted.

Instead, when you want to find information on Tor, you turn to user-edited and oft-vandalized portals or listings, such as the Hidden Wiki.

Perils

With anonymity comes criminality. Highly-publicized sites, like the Silk Road, trade in illicit substances. Others sell illegal firearms, in part or whole. All transactions are done via Bitcoin to preserve anonymity. Child pornography, unfortunately, is also widely traded on the dark Web. Instructions for bomb-making and drug manufacturing are a mere click away, for the curious folks who trust Tor's promises of security and anonymity.

Promise

When Hosni Mubarak turned off the Internet, hundreds, and then thousands of Egyptians turned to Tor to organize resistance efforts, reports The Boston Globe. It was their lifeline to the world and to each other. Tor has served a similar purpose to Iranians and Chinese.

In nations where certain websites are blacked out, often a mirror of the blocked site can be found as a .onion. One obvious example is the fully unredacted and uncensored version of Wikileaks.

Privacy?

We can't help but look at the claims of anonymity with an uneducated skeptic's eye. Who would've imagined that the NSA was tracking Americans' data indisciminately? And Tor hasn't been without its security mishaps, such as the javascript exploit that revealed the IP addresses of FreedomHost users, including the CEO Eric Marques, a man the FBI called "the largest facilitator of child porn on the [I]nternet."

And, of course, the more steps you take to remain anonymous, the more attention you'll attract. The NSA has already stated when it comes to tracking Tor data, you "will not be treated as a United States person, unless such person can be positively identified as such, or the nature or circumstances of the person's communications give rise to a reasonable belief that such person is a United States person," reports Ars Technica.

In other words, even with the promise and security of Tor, it is best used with a load of skepticism, and for those inclined to explore the shadow side of the Web, a load of restraint.

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