Proxy servers, the topic of my first column, are a simple and easy way to enjoy the Internet and leave as few footprints as possible. They are not fool proof, and they require some occasional maintenance. But, proxies are also not the only nor the best of the alternatives available for browsing safely and anonymously.
In the late 1990s, two U.S. Naval Research Laboratory employees developed a way of protecting government intelligence data online called “onion routing.”
Whenever you go online and use a browser, you are sending and receiving information. It requires you to disclose your identity and to have the computer lay out a route between your browser and the data on the internet you seek.
Normally, your identity (your IP, in machine terms) and the route your data takes are open and visible with the right software. Internet data requests pass through a multitude of routers before they reach their destination. On the journey back, a totally different route can be used.
Onion routing is designed “to conceal its users’ identities and their online activity from surveillance and traffic analysis by separating identification and routing.”
Essentially, the message your browser sends to connect with the data you seek on the web is like an onion. The message is encrypted in layers and sent through a route where each linkage in the route sees only one layer of the connection, peels it away, and sends the message on to the next connection.
The final destination doesn’t see you (i.e., know your IP address), it only sees the last link in the chain. Although not foolproof, and although it does have some weaknesses, it is a method of browsing the web that U.S. intelligence agencies have used for a decade.
Interestingly enough, this same method of browsing is available to any user who wants it! The Tor Project, named aptly after the method which spawned it, “the onion router,” is open to anyone who wants secure anonymous web browsing and the ability to send and receive messages without disclosing their identity or location.
Tor is a free, open, distributed network. It is run by volunteers who let your messages and your Internet searching pass around the Internet using a network based on the onion concept. You access the Tor network by installing and using a Tor client and browser specifically designed for the Tor network.
It works as follows. The Tor browser contacts Tor for a secure and encrypted list of Tor “nodes” on the Internet. It then creates a random path through the Internet to your destination and encrypts each layer of the path, so that all that layer sees is one step in the path. The ultimate destination only sees the last step in the path. It doesn’t ‘see’ you.
Why bother, you might ask? The simple answer is it protects you, your identity, and your privacy. You can remain anonymous to sites collecting marketing data and personal shopping activities.
You can protect your children from disclosing their location. And, you can research sensitive topics. All of this gives you the freedom to explore the web with less fear and anxiety about the risks.