Tor: The Anonymous Internet, and If It's Right for YouS

Since the revelations about NSA spying came to the surface earlier this summer, everybody's paying a little bit more attention to their privacy online. That's good news for Tor, a suite of software and network of computers that enables you to use the internet anonymously. And for anyone who uses it.

Tor includes anonymity software as well as a special browser, but it's the network that stands to benefit most from this spike in interest. In the past few weeks, there's been a 100 percent rise in the number of Tor clients. Although it's unclear why sudden increase—NSA concerns have to be part of it, but doesn't explain the full bounce—that's an all-time record.

There is a fear, however, that Tor's popularity is attracting more and more attention from spy agencies who are working hard to figure out how to track users. It's not just Tor, either. The use of encrypted email services and other proxy services also attract the attention of the NSA and friends, according to a secret document published last month by The Guardian. This revelation came just a couple of weeks before a scare that the NSA had actually been tracking users on Tor, though that assumption might've actually been a mistake made by a team of cybersecurity researchers investigating an exploit.

So is Tor really the solution to anonymous browsing or just another way to draw attention to yourself? It's complicated. In many ways, Tor is the quickest and easiest ways to browse the web anonymously. It's also not without its drawbacks. To truly gain a better understanding of Tor, its advantages and disadvantages, though, it helps to understand exactly how the system works.

What Is Tor?

Tor is short for "The Onion Router." This refers both to the software that you install on your computer to run Tor and the network of computers that manages Tor connections. Put simply, Tor enables you to route web traffic through several other computers in the Tor network so that the party on the other end of the connection can't trace the traffic back to you. That way, the more Tor users there are, the more protected your info. As the name implies, it creates a number of layers that conceal your identity from the rest of the world.

Tor: The Anonymous Internet, and If It's Right for YouS

The computers that handle the intermediary traffic are known as Tor Relays, and there are three different kinds of them: middle relays, end relays and bridges. Naturally, end relays are the final relays in the chain of connections, while middle handle traffic along the way. Anybody can sign up to be a middle router from the comfort of their own home without fear of being implicated in any illicit activity that might be bouncing off their connection. Those who host exit relays bear a bit more of a burden as they're the ones who are targeted by police and copyright holders if any of that illicit activity is detected. Bridges are simply Tor relays that aren't listed publicly, perhaps to shield them from IP blockers. It should be made clear that you don't have to run a relay to use Tor, but it's a nice thing to do.

Your average Tor user, however, is probably safe. The software is used by everyone from journalists to political dissidents to safeguard their privacy and security, and it really is tough to track someone using Tor. It's even used by a branch of the Navy for intelligence operations. (In fact, it was originally built as part of a Navy project whose purpose was developing ways to protect U.S. government communications.) As we now know, Tor is also certainly something that the NSA is paying attention to. But if it's good enough for the military, it should be good enough for you.

Limitations to Using Tor

The most noticeable drawbacks to using Tor are performance-related. Since internet traffic is being routed through at least three relays, it tends to get held up along the way. This is especially noticeable for heavier elements like audio and video tracks, and based on the number of users signing up to act as relays, it gets worse with more users on the network. Tor is well aware of its speed issues, though, and maintains a pretty comprehensive troubleshooting guide.

Where using Tor really gets tricky is when intelligence agencies step in. Obviously, the government's cybersecurity hawks are aware of Tor and its capabilities. As I mentioned a little earlier, they also see its use as cause for concern. As the leaked document signed by Attorney General Eric Holder details, the NSA identifies people using anonymity software like Tor as foreign nationals by default. These users "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." If it's eventually confirmed that the person of interest is in fact an American citizen, though, the records are destroyed.

There are other risks to be considered when using Tor. Those hosting exit relays, for instance, attract attention from law enforcement agencies and may receive copyright takedown notices (among other things). It is also possible that you might have your computer seized by law enforcement if you're running an exit relay, though nobody has never been sued or prosecuted for doing so. Finally, as with any anonymous service, there's always the chance that very smart hackers can connect the dots and figure out who you are. It would be very difficult, but not impossible.

Alternatives to Tor

While Tor has its downsides, it's probably the easiest and best way to use the internet anonymously. Like I said before, though, the growing popularity of the software could signal some changes with how authorities treat it. So it's always nice to have alternatives.

The most popular method for becoming anonymous is the Virtual Private Network (VPN), typically those that are encrypted. As the name implies, a VPN is a private network that's spread across the public internet enabling that can also be used to encrypt data or increase security of individual accounts. Depending on what VPN you use, you'll have access to different levels of security. The good news is that VPNs work well. The bad news is that they cost money. While there are hundreds of choices out there, Hide My Ass, Private Internet Access and IPredator are two established and trusted options. You can learn more about VPNs at Lifehacker.

Similar to accessing the internet through a VPN is using a proxy to connect. An anonymous proxy server is a lot like a Tor relay except you have more control over where you want to connect and when. As with a relay, traffic from your computer will pass through a proxy and come out the other side, sometimes without collecting any data about the origin. However, they might also serve you ads or malware if you're not careful. Private Internet Access and Hide My Ass both offer proxy services, while Privacy Protector offers a services geared towards protecting privacy (duh). LifeHacker also has some more information on proxy servers.

To Tor or Not to Tor

So what's the verdict? Before you decide, think hard about what you're doing online and why you want to remain anonymous. If you're just trying to cover your tracks after looking at porn or something, a private browsing mode like Chrome's Incognito feature will probably suffice. But if you're someone who's trying to evade the authorities for piracy or whatever reason—we're not here to judge—or are generally spooked by the NSA and friends, a more heavy duty solution is in order.

So if you do really want to be almost completely anonymous, use Tor. Any alternative is going to present more drawbacks, whether it's a paid subscription or unwanted ads, and it's hard to argue with Tor's convenience. Plus, there's a good reason why Tor's become so popular: It usually works great. While that record might be challenged soon and it's not 100 percent flawless, Tor is good enough for you if it's good enough for the million plus people in the network. And it's always getting better.