by Cassie Phillips, Guest Contributor
If you are interested in online security or are otherwise concerned about online surveillance, you might have heard of Tor before. It stands for “The Onion Router” and was originally developed by the United States to keep spies safe when they were conducting operations involving digital communication.
To put it simply, it works by tossing your signal through a house of mirrors before getting your information. There is a network of “nodes” that are created by volunteers to mask an IP address.
The end node will have a completely different IP address than whoever sent an information request, and the request has travelled through enough nodes so that the original sender is nearly untraceable. It sounds perfect, doesn’t it?
Yet there is more than meets the eye when it comes to Tor. Here are six of the top reasons why anyone interested in using Tor should reconsider:
1) Alternatives Exist
A simple alternative that some would recommend is using a proxy server, which masks an IP address by making it look like another server is sending requests instead of the actual sender. It is cheap, simple and raises fewer red flags than using Tor would. The problems with them are involved with security (many of them are scams or malware) and unreliability. As great as they are for certain situations, they simply aren’t good enough to constantly use.
The most prominent and effective alternative we can recommend is a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which is a service that will connect your computer to an offsite secure server via an encrypted connection. This will mask your IP address and allow you to safely surf the internet on any network regardless of how safe it is. The encryption is that powerful. They are particularly great at getting around government censorship, which is just what many Tor users are looking for in the first place. The very best options for VPNs don’t cost all that much and are reliable enough for you to use in any situation.
2) Legal Problems and Criminal Associations
There is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with Tor. That being said, it has not received good associations over the years. Terrorists use Tor. Criminals use Tor. Child pornographers use Tor. This has led people to believe that it is the tool that is evil and not the people misusing the tool from its intended purpose of safety and privacy. Tor users have been stereotyped as a criminal element online, and while most internet users won’t pay it too much attention (or know that you are using it), it might bring unwanted suspicion down on you.
There is also nothing illegal about Tor, at least in the United States. That doesn’t stop it from being the subject of prejudice, and that prejudice can turn to you should you find yourself in a misunderstanding with the law. It won’t look good, and using an alternative method to mask your IP address won’t raise nearly as many eyebrows.
3) Connection Slowdown Can Occur
If you are running a connection through an unnecessarily (unnecessary in terms of pure efficiency and speed) long circuit in order to reach its destination, you are going to have some internet slowdown no matter what you do. In certain cases, this is acceptable. You might already have such a fast connection that it doesn’t matter that you are losing 20 percent of your download speed. You might only be downloading text pages that use the minimum amount of bandwidth that you can imagine.
Yet the slowdown can sometimes become so severe that using the internet at all becomes impossible. There might be a lack of nodes in your area, meaning a longer travel distance for your signal to become sufficiently obscured. The network might be strained at peak hours where there are a lot of users looking to pass through an area. There are plenty of reasons that might give you a slowed connection, but the effect is always debilitating, especially if you are serious about your internet use. And if you are even considering Tor, you should consider yourself serious about your internet use.
4) Compatibility Issues
Tor was never really intended for average consumer or citizen use. While the developers of the browser have done an excellent job adapting it to be compatible with most of the internet, the internet was never designed for Tor. This means that you might run into some problems while using Tor to browse more complex websites.
Some scripts might even give your location away after requesting personal data and your IP address as part of a cookie or as part of a script. This can tip you off as both a Tor user in the context of other data, and it ruins the privacy and security you downloaded Tor for in the first place. If you are concerned, you can limit yourself to forums and text-based webpages, but the internet is quickly moving to other methods of conveying information with the increased capabilities of the average user.
5) You Can Be Tracked
If you think that using Tor covers your tracks completely, you would be correct...two years ago. Now investigators and individuals have found a way to get around Tor’s defenses. The main concern stems from the fact that anyone can send up an end-node where the traffic can be monitored. What if a government decided to set up a few dozen and take note of all the requests that came through? What if a corporation decided to do the same?
If someone or a body of people had the proper resources, they could find patterns in the data requests and, through sheer processing power, track you down. They will eventually find similarities in your requests and perhaps information attached to requests that would lead a clever mind to put the pieces together. In addition to this being a massive breach of privacy, it serves as a security risk with the data sent and received being suspect to interception. Your entire online life could be at risk.
6) Governments Take Notice
If you are using Tor, it is most likely true (barring techniques and technologies we don’t know of publicly yet) that discovering your identity will be a tricky business. This does not mean that you are safe when downloading and installing Tor in the first place, the knowledge of which isn’t so hard to determine. Should a government notice this, they will be more likely to put their eyes on you, wondering what you might have to hide. For example, the United States government has a program called XKeyscore, which reportedly makes a note of everyone downloading Tor. This will make any non-Tor internet use a risky business. Sometimes it is just better to hide in plain sight or use an alternative tool without so many negative associations.
Depending on the government that you are living under, this can have life-changing consequences for you. Due to its long history of use against oppressive regimes, oppressive regimes aren’t too fond of Tor. Some have gone so far as to criminalize its use and prosecute anyone who is caught downloading it. By prosecuting, we mean throw in prison and destroy the key, if not making a very violent example of you in a rather public location. This isn’t too common today, but depending on where you live, you won’t want to risk it.
Do you have any other thoughts on Tor? Are you going to stop using it now? Do you think the risks are worth it? Leave a comment below and join the conversation. We would love to hear about what you do to keep yourself private online and whether you have had success or problems with the network.
IMAGE CREDIT: PHOTO ATELIER
Cassie is a cybersecurity expert and technology enthusiast who enjoys sharing her knowledge with others.
For some great tips on how you can protect yourself online, follow Cassie on Twitter: @securethoughtsc