Anonymity on the Web – Tor Browser

Developed by the Tor Project, Tor is free open source software that allows you to surf the web with a high degree on anonymity.   Initially, your web request (for the website you will eventually connect to)  is bounced through a number of server relays, and through this process, your IP address (your online identity) is changed.  When the website tries to find out about you, the information gathered is significantly different from your actual information.  By using analyze.privacy.net to show my information, here is a comparison of the gather-able  information gained from me normally visiting a website, and then me visiting using the Tor Browser:

Normal Website Visit

  • My IP Address:  Displays my IP address and that I am from the United States in North America
  • Host name:  Basically, my IP address and the name of my ISP
  • Cookie Test:  Looks for cookies from the site on my system, in this case, none are available
  • Linked from:  The website I was on before this site
  • Browser Type and Operating System:  Correctly identified that I am on a Mac, Intel processor, the operating system/version being used, and that I am using a Firefox browser – ver. 12.0

Tor Browser Visit

  • My IP Address:  Displays an IP address other than my own, and that I am from the United Kingdom in Western Europe
  • Host name:  Displays nullroute.net with no IP addrress
  • Cookie Test:  Looks for cookies from the site on my system, in this case, none are available
  • Linked from:  The website I was on before this site
  • Browser Type and Operating System:  Displays that I am using Windows NT 6.1, rev. 5.0, no mention of processor type or type of computer, and that I am using a Firefox – ver 5.0

There is even more detailed information gathered about your computer, i.e: connection speed, screen dimensions, types of media displayers installed, proxy connections, etc.   This information gathered from a “Tor” website visit only matches my machine by chance.  In addition, when you travel to another website, your IP address changes; consequently, so does the information being gathered.

The browser used by Tor is Firefox, but it has been configured to provide the best security possible.  Cookies are not stored to the hard disk, – when you close the browser the cookies, if any, are gone.  Tor encrypts your “traffic” to and within the Tor network.  The Tor Browser includes HTTPS Everywhere, which forces the use of HTTPS encryption with major websites that support it.  In addition, the browser uses NO Script, a “white-list” pre-emptive script blocking approach.  If there is a safer browser available, I do not know what it is.

On a Mac, installing the Tor Browser is a snap.  Download the current .dmg file from https://www.torproject.org/download/download click the .dmg file to decompress it.  Drag the Tor (onion) icon to your Application folder.  Pretty simple.

Vidalia Control Panel

Start Tor by clicking the Onion icon in your Application folder.  The Vidalia Control Panel opens up, in the Status portion of the window, a green horizontal progress bar appears until you are connected to the Tor network.  Then the Tor Browser opens.  The start page is a web site that confirms your Tor connection, and tells you what your current IP address is.  That is pretty much it……..start surfing.

On earlier versions, I found the browser to be a little “buggy”.  I have used the current version pretty heavily for a week now, and have had no problems with it at all.  That being said, when you use the tor browser, you will notice some degradation in your surfing speed.  Think about it. You are being bounced thru a number of servers around the world before you reach your final destination.  Most of the time, the decreased speed in barely noticeable, and is not annoying.  For the added security, I believe the tradeoff in performance is worth it.

On the Tor website download page, I recommend you circle back and read their article, “Want Tor to really work?”.  To add to Tor’s ability to protect your information while you travel the net, follow the instructions given in this article.

Tor is used by businesses, activists, the Media, military/law enforcement, and regular people like ( I presume) you and me.  Is Tor 100% safe?  As fast as technology changes, I don’t know that being able to protect 100% of your information all the time while you surf is even achievable.  That being said, I can’t think of any software or process that is available now that comes even close to the level of protection that Tor does provide.  That is probably why so many people and organizations use it.  The Tor Project has done an admirable job.

–Larry

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