A Quick Guide To The Tor Browser

The recent Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal showed just how precarious everyday internet activities can be when it comes to information security. Many were understandably alarmed after news broke that the political consulting firm gained access to personal data of approximately 80 million Facebook users. Yet many remain unsure of what practical steps they can take for protection.

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Some are opting to leave Facebook — and potentially other social sites — entirely, which is the most straightforward way to increase security. However, others feel a need to maintain social media profiles for a number of completely justifiable reasons.

Social sites are but one of many security vulnerabilities that come with an online existence. Your internet service providers (ISPs) for example, can easily view information about your online habits. This became an even larger issue in 2017, after Congress repealed privacy protections from the Obama administration regarding internet activity. It is now legal for ISPs to collect and sell user data to third party advertisers or marketing firms.

In ensuing conversations that have sprung up about ways to protect your data and internet activity, you may have heard a suggestion to use Tor. However, you may not be quite sure exactly what that means, or how it can help.

[Recent article: A closer look at data sharing in the MoviePass service.]

Tor is a network that facilitates anonymous internet use. It uses a series of relay servers to mask origins of traffic, so activity appears only to be coming from Tor. It is a choice many turn to if they want to hide their individual IP addresses, and can be especially ideal for those living in heavily censored areas or working in professions that deal with sensitive information. Tor can also be of use to the individual internet user looking for increased levels of anonymity from ISPs or government agencies. (Though potential users should note that this process isn’t fail-safe, and in some instances actually using Tor can get you on the radar of intelligence agencies.)

The most direct way to use this network is through a Tor browser, which you can download from the easily accessible Tor website. The browser is an adaptation of Firefox, and can help block your traffic from ISPs. It does, however, have limitations. The privacy only applies to activity performed within the Tor browser itself — it is not something like a VPN that operates on a network-level. Within Tor, you’ll have to practice other precautions, including avoiding torrenting and plug-ins like Flash, which can compromise IP address security. But the browser does offer a range of features, including:

Onion Services

Tor technically stands for The Onion Router, and using Tor gives you access to onion services. These are essentially web destinations you can only access through using Tor. Connections between you and such destinations are end-to-end encrypted, and their IP addresses are hidden. Be cautious, however, about stumbling on to onion sites used for unseemly activity.

Get Around Blocked Websites

If you’re living in an area where certain sites or online destinations like Twitter are blocked by the government, Tor can be a way to gain access. It can similarly be a way to add more anonymity to your social media browsing if you use designated Tor platform destinations. In 2014, for example, Facebook created a Tor-specific online address.

Private Communities

According to Tor, the site can also be beneficial for those seeking online communities in which to discuss sensitive or stigmatized topics. Tor users can access private forums that address topics like abuse and illness, for example.

No Installation Necessary

A beneficial feature of Tor is that it doesn’t need to live on your desktop or laptop. You can store the browser on a USB or external drive and use that to connect to the network. This can also help keep the fact that you use Tor in itself more private, especially if you are in a situation with a shared computer.

Platform Flexibility

Tor works across multiple platforms, providing privacy opportunities for those using Microsoft, Apple or GNU/Linux systems.

Mobile Access

You can also incorporate Tor protection into mobile activity. Versions of the Tor browser are available for Android and iOS.

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While Tor is likely still used most by those working in high-risk fields — or those looking to do unseemly things — it does remain an option for the average web user looking to increase online anonymity. It is not a fail-safe choice, and many also weigh it against a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which can offer privacy protections outside a specific browser.

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