Henry Dalziel | Latest InfoSec News, Product Reviews | July 15, 2013
Tor (which used to be called The Onion Router) has become more popular following the PRISM scandal for being able to hide your identity online. This post outlines a brief background and some pros and cons of Tor and the Tor Network.
What is Tor?
Tor directs Internet traffic through a free, worldwide network which is managed and set-up by activists or volunteers. According to their website they currently (July 2013) have a network of almost 4,000 relays that essentially jumble up the route an Internet connection, or ‘journey’, makes. The best way to describe the Tor network is using an analogy of traveling. Imagine that you want to fly from New York to London. Well, 99% of people will fly direct from New York to London, but using the Tor network, instead of flying direct you’d fly to Miami, then Havana, then Nigeria, then the the UAE and finally you arrive at London!
The main point of the Tor network is to mask a user’s location or Internet usage from people whom they suspect might be viewing their traffic activities. Using Tor does not make you completely invisible but it certainly does make it more difficult to trace an end-users Internet activity.
The main principle and purpose of Tor is to protect users’ personal privacy and freedom, and ensure their right of privacy. This is somewhat achieved by Tor through their relays that their Internet activities from being monitored.
What is “Onion Routing”
You’ll see the onion symbol over Tor, and no, they are not French, rather, the term “Onion Routing” refers to the layers of encryption used by the program. When data is sent through the Tor network the data is encrypted and re-encrypted several times as is passes through randomly selected Tor relays. Each relay adds a “layer” of encryption which changes as it arrives at the next relay in the network. One of the main benefits of the encryption is that the routing is hidden.
However, Tor does not protect the actual communications content once it leaves the Tor relay network. In short, Tor is best used in combination with other encryption tools. Worth mentioning that Tor can be slow. Owing to the random relay routing and encryption the service can often respond much slower than a regular unencrypted traffic behavior.
Tor and Anonymity
The Tor network is unable to address completely all anonymity concerns since the open source project us really focused on the protection of relaying data from ‘traffic analysis’. Tor must be used with caution however, because, for example, you shouldn’t provide your name or other revealing information in web forms and the network does not protect against all attacks. The main cyber threat that you would encounter whilst using Tor would be that an ‘attacker’ or anyone wanting to snoop on you can watch the traffic coming from your computer, and, also the traffic arriving at your destination. A sophisticated spying agency could put the beginning and end bits together and establish that the activity was initiated by your online activity.
We have only just scratched the surface with Tor. There are other products that Tor has created, notably the Tor Bundle, which is a browser addon (side note: if you are interested in pentesting and security Firefox addons look here). Suffice to say that following the PRISM and NSA revelations, the interest in Tor and closed peer-to-peer communication tools are growing in popularity as are search engine interfaces like duckduckgo and Start Page. Anonymity and secure encryption, like Tor, can be used by the cyber criminals (of all shades) just as easily as by free speech activists and human rights activists. What do you think? Do you rate Tor? What is the future of this technology? Can you see it growing in acceptance? We’d love to hear your comments and update this post over time with added comments.
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