Every online destination you visit is recorded and stored (like this). An IP address, which records your location details, directs the content you email, or otherwise transmit, to various other nodes in the internet. This occurs the same way a postal address transmits packages to a different locations in a suburb. In response to the growing global concern of meta-data mining, online citizens are choosing various alternate methods of internet browsing, such as VPN‘s or TOR.
TOR (the onion router) was created by the TOR Project, an activist group which advocates for internet anonymity. It’s free, open source, and is designed to protect your identity whilst you surf the web. It is worth noting, however, that much of TOR’s funding comes from a small organisation called the Government of the United States of America. I’ll let you decide whether this is downright disturbing or simply ironic.
The logic behind TOR is in layering (hence the ‘onion’ theme). Information (e.g. the IP address of a computer/node) is packaged at the start of a route, and as it reaches each server, one layer sheds. This means that rather than your data seeing you reach a certain destination from your IP address, it can only be read from the final server to the destination.
Here’s a Harry Potter analogy; let’s travel back to the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry has to use a secret passage to get into Hogsmeade to avoid detection. If he left the Gryffindor common room and walked straight into Hogsmeade, his whole path could be tracked and observed. Instead, he toward the library, in full sight. This is the entry guard. Next, he pulls on his invisibility cloak to avoid detection and sneaks to the one-eyed witch statue. This becomes the middle relay. He climbs through it and ventures down the secret passage within. Eventually he arrives in the Honeydukes cellar, which is the exit relay. Thus he arrives in Hogsmeade, his destination. He is only seen (by his friends) walking between the exit relay and the destination; the passageway is secret so his path cannot be tracked. If we consider each path a layer which disintegrates at each relay transmission, Harry’s route almost resembles TOR.
Once you have gained access to your destination without being traced, you’re free to conduct a variety of activities;
- criminal activity (drug trafficking, distributing illicit content etc.)
- accessing material which is normally out of reach (i.e. content restricted by borders; American streaming sites and so on)
- simply conduct your usual activities without your data being harvested faster than a bio-engineered chicken.
If we leap back into the Potter metaphor; Harry uses his invisible destination as a platform to anonymously harass the school bullies; Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle.
TOR is a popular means of achieving internet anonymity, however there are ways for your data to still be tracked. This is often through downloading unsafe materials (especially PDF files, which often carry bots which can uncover your identity) or not knowing how to use the browser properly (source). Thus TOR is not a foolproof route. The issue is not in the design, however. Federal agents revealed in 2014 that they capitalise on human error to uncover data in the TOR system.
So, if you’re planning to don an invisibility cloak for your internet travels anytime soon, be sure not to trip – or all could be revealed. (*audience gasps*)