Tech to keep you anonymous online, Part 1: Tor Project

Even if you're not aware of it, your actions are being watched and recorded — everyone online is, in some fashion. For most of us, our online behavior is less of interest to Big Brother than it is to Big Madison Avenue. Still, it's kind of freaky. With that in mind, we present to you part one of our rough guide to remaining anonymous online by using free technology widely available to all.

Aside from shielding behaviors from nosy marketers, the power to remain anonymous can be a matter of life, death, or jail time for a wide variety of groups such as human rights advocates and political dissidents all the way down to pirates and criminals — Anyone who exists outside the blessing of the authorities, with good reason or not.

Anonymity is just a tool, one that helps protect Robin Hood as well as the common Sherwood ruffian. To put it another way: think of this guide like Yoda teaching Luke all manner of Jedi trickery. But in the end, which side of the Force you go to is entirely up to you. Choose well, young Skywalker.

Part I: IP Address, SchmIP Schmadress

The Internet knows what you did last summer. And, what you did this morning when you thought no one was looking. And in our ever-increasing mobile world, it knows where you are physically located via your pocket device. This isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Your IP address allows you to stay logged into various web sites if you choose, or can allow content to be specifically tailored to your location — for example, Google, CNN, Facebook and the like will assume you want the U.S. English-language additions of their sites if you are in the United States, and will assume you want the Spanish-language Mexican version if you're south of the border.

So far, so good.

But on the flipside, the websites you visit (and the folks behind the scenes with access to their collected data) also know where you've been. Every time you visit a website, it keeps a log of your activity via your IP address. No matter how personal, everything you've done online is recorded somewhere in some form: the high school crush you looked up on Facebook, the potential medical scare you Googled, and even that niche porn site you visit on occasion when no one is home (you know the one — they specialize into some really crazy weird stuff and you'd admit to murder before telling anyone what it is).

But according to The Tor Project, this shouldn't be the case. They see anonymity as not just a welcome perk of the digital age, but as a human right. And they want to help you stay anonymous as you traverse through the vast digital deserts. No matter if you're looking up old flings, reading up on embarrassing maladies, or searching through the annals of adult entertainment, this collection of activists feels you should be able to do this with the same obscurity you would enjoy while walking down a public street.

But forget all our first world concerns regarding privacy for a moment. The case for anonymity can become a matter of life and death (or being tortured or not being tortured) if you live under a restrictive government that keeps close tabs on the communications of its subjects.

There are various ways to "shield" your IP addresses, namely through proxy servers. This can be somewhat tricky for non- and semi-geekish among us. The Tor Project offers a simple software download that will shield your IP at the click of a button. Tor works via a network of virtual tunnels that connect through a series of nodes (volunteered computers that run on Tor's peer-to-peer network).

These convoluted pathways allow individuals to hide their identity by shielding the IP address from the websites they visit. A user can connect to a server anywhere in the world via a random path of encrypted pathways between nodes. Only the final link is unencrypted so, for example, a user from China could search details on the Tiananmen Square Massacre through a U.S. node, but the local Chinese firewall won't have any idea — the old "switcharoo."

While it's not a perfect defense, it makes it very difficult for the authorities to know that one of its citizens is accessing forbidden information on the Internet. Perhaps just as important, the service can also allow users to publish materials on websites without their location ever being revealed, allowing them to give a voice to the outside world.

How Good Guys Can Use It

The most immediate benefits would be to give access to an unfettered flow of information for organizations or individuals living under oppressive governments that regulate communications. This could open the information spigot, regardless of the local regime's views.

For those of us not living under a brutal dictatorship, the technology could allow users to escape from the watchful eye of corporations who already collect massive amounts of information on those who use their online products, which can then be shared with whoever they see fit.

How Bad Guys Can Use It

Some Web access is banned for a reason. The Tor network could theoretically be used to give anonymous and untraceable access to those who would seek out illicit content such as bomb-making instructions or child pornography. It could also shield terrorist organizations or organized crime outfits from the watch of the authorities.

Like anything, it can be used for good or bad. Unfortunately, the bad here can be pretty scary.

The Man's Reaction

The biggest threat to Tor's reliability has been China's relentless maneuvering to block its citizens' access to Tor or other roundabout communication networks. It's been a game of adaptation between open access advocates and the Great Firewall's masons.

A great deal of research has been invested into how to "unveil" the system, much of it funded by the Tor Project itself as research to strengthen the network. There have been some successful — though incomplete — methods devised to hack into the system and log active Tor users. No system is perfect, but it remains of your best defenses out there.

The Tor Project isn't the only technology out there that will help keep you off the radar, for better or worse. Check out our part two of this series by clicking this link.

Via Tor Project

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