EFF recently kicked off its second Tor Challenge, an initiative to strengthen the Tor network for online anonymity and improve one of the best free privacy tools in existence. The campaign (which launched with partners at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, the Tor Project, and the Free Software Foundation) is already off to a great start. In just the first few days, it's seen over 600 new or expanded Tor nodes – more than during the entire first Tor Challenge.
This is great news, but how does it affect you? To understand that, you have to dig into what Tor actually is, and what people can do to support it. Support can come in many forms, too. Even just using Tor is one of the best and easiest things a person can do to preserve privacy and anonymity on the internet.
What is Tor?
Tor is a network and a software package that helps you anonymously use the internet. Specifically, Tor hides the source and destination of your internet traffic, this prevents anyone from knowing both who you are and what you are looking at (though they may know one or the other). Tor also hides the destination of your traffic, which can circumvent some forms of censorship. Tor has been in development for many years and is very stable and mature. It is regarded as one of the best privacy tools currently in existence and it does not cost you anything.
How does Tor help me?
This graphic shows how Tor and https can work together to protect your privacy on the internet. Basically, Tor encrypts that data you send across the internet in multiple layers, like an onion. Then it sends that data through multiple relays, each one of which peels a layer off the onion until your packet leaves the final relay and gets to its destination. This is called 'onion routing' and it is a fantastic method for keeping privacy on the web. Proper use of Tor (along with HTTPS Everywhere) can be one of the best ways to ensure your browsing will remain anonymous.
But I don't need privacy, I have nothing to hide!
Everyone needs privacy sometimes. For example: perhaps you end up with an embarrassing medical condition and you want to search for information about it but you don't want Google and every advertiser to know about your bodily functions. Tor can help you keep that information private. Tor can also help prevent online tracking more generally as well. Proper use of Tor can circumvent most third-party trackers that governments and corporations can use to track your browsing habits and send you obnoxious intrusive advertisements. Tor can also protect your data from hackers on your network. Tor can also help you get around censorship and firewalls from the filter at your school or office or even help you circumvent firewalls or censorship put in place by your government.
How do I use Tor?
The easiest way to get up and running with Tor is to use the Tor Browser Bundle. It is a version of Firefox that comes preconfigured to use Tor. Tor Browser Bundle is set up to use Tor the right way so that you will avoid a lot of the common pitfalls that can pierce your veil of anonymity. If your prefer a more holistic approach or wish to use Tor for something other than just web browsing, you can use Tails. Tails is an operating system that runs off of a live CD. It is configured so that all internet connections run through Tor; and when you are done, everything that you did is wiped clean from your computer's memory. It never touches your hard drive and leaves no traces on your computer. If you want to use Tor on your Android phone, check out Orbot, it can run your browsing and other programs through Tor.
Tor sounds great. What can I do to help?
To help make Tor faster and more secure one of the best things you can do is set up a Tor relay. That's what we're asking people to do in our Tor Challenge. The more relays there are in the Tor network the more speed and security Tor has. Setting up a relay may also improve your own personal anonymity. But even just using Tor increases the anonymity of all the other users. There's some safety in numbers: if the only people using Tor are those who have a serious need for it then any use of Tor is suspicious. But if Tor gets used for everything from pizza orders to looking at funny cat photos then it is much less so.
Will I have perfect anonymity all of the time?
Nothing is foolproof, not even Tor. If you use Tor the wrong way you can end up destroying your own anonymity. If you use Tor to log into Facebook or Gmail, for example, they may not know where you are coming from but they will certainly know who you are and they may even be able to track your browsing around the web. The Tor Project has posted a list of common mistakes that inexperienced users sometimes make.
When used properly Tor is one of the best tools for internet privacy that exists. You can use it to circumvent firewalls in an oppressive country, retain your privacy, or browse the internet while at school. Setting up and running Tor is easy and it is one of the best things any citizen of the internet can do to help keep a free and open internet.
And if you can run a Tor relay, or want to commit to boosting the bandwidth on a relay you already run, you can take part in the Tor Challenge and push it over its target while collecting prizes. Check out the Tor Challenge today.
This article first appeared on the Electronic Frontier Foundation and is reproduced here under the Creative Commons license.