Let’s Talk About Tor, Baby
Tor can be described a number of very simple ways: it’s a browser, it’s a privacy tool, it’s a government crafted mechanism for spies, it’s the dark web where drugs and humans are exchanged for cash. It’s all of these things, and more.
The main crux of the article today is about the “and more” part of that statement, but that isn’t where we’ll start. We’ll start, instead, at the beginning.
In the 90s, “onion routing” was created by — and hopefully this surprises no one — the US government, specifically the Naval Research Laboratory. After a couple years, the development project was taken over by another US governmental agency, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, already well known in this space for helping to create the internet).
Onion routing is complex, but described as an onion on purpose: a message is encrypted with numerous layers that have to be peeled away by the individual attempting to read the message. The accepted way of picturing it is below:
Onion routing can be done multiple ways, but the most common and familiar version now is called Tor. Tor originally, again, was funded by the Naval Research Laboratory, but in 2006 a 501(c)3 under the name The Tor Project was founded, essentially taking over the project. The Tor Browser, which is what most associate with The Tor Project nowadays, was only created in 2008.
Since then, Tor has garnered much more attention from the mainsteam and more use by the public at-large… but not necessarily for the right reasons.
What people tend to associate Tor with these days is drug dealers and child pornography. There’s, of course, some truth to that (no one can forget the infamous Silk Road), but the depths of the reality are significantly murkier than what’s observed in the shallows.
- Tor and hidden services are only needed by criminals or criminal entities to conceal their misdeeds.
- False. Tor is used by bloggers, anonymous sources, journalists, and people in countries that block access to normal sites and shut down VPNs regularly (see: China, Iran, etc.). Oh, and even The New York Times maintains a .onion site, so therefore they MuSt bE cRiMiNaLs. Visit their webpage if you have the Tor web browser by clicking here. If you don’t have Tor yet, here’s how the page appears:
2. Hidden services aren’t hidden.
- This can be true, depending on the nature of the exit nodes being utilized, but is no worse an infraction than the fact that DNS services are often compromised. It also depends on the operator of the exit node, who may have malicious intent. Nonetheless, usually people are caught using Tor simply because of human error.
3. It’s easy enough to create a traditional website anonymously, no need for Tor.
- While there are available methods to anonymously purchase and maintain a website (ie; buying cryptocurrencies anonymously and paying a domain service that accepts cryptocurrencies to purchase domain for you), there are numerous flaws with this: many individuals don’t want exposure to cryptocurrencies or don’t want to risk attempting to acquire it anonymously, using cryptocurrency instantly exposes someone — who may be living in poverty — to increased volatility and downside, and finally, it’s much simpler for a country’s firewall to block your single website, than continuously block new .onion addresses spun up.
4. Freedom Hosting, a specialist Tor web hosting service established in 2008, was proof positive that Tor is mostly used to disseminate child porn.
- Freedom Hosting, while certainly guilty of this crime, isn’t a good example of a good actor within the Tor network. Despite requests to have sites taken down, or reports by users, Freedom Hosting allowed all sites to remain up. This will always get you in trouble, and any Tor web hosting service should be aware of that.
5. Instead of using Tor, people can use VPNs, Github, and other platforms to maintain privacy.
- This is true, to a degree, but there are problems with this proclamation, and I can attest to this through first hand experience: when in China, all of my friends would get VPN services, but the contracts were always 1 day, 1 week, or by data usage — there were no long term contracts. When I asked my friends why this was, they explained that the Chinese government is constantly shutting down VPNs, so people always have to find a new one to maintain free access to the worldwide web. This can get expensive. This is where a tool like Obfs4, an obfuscated bridge that makes traffic appear as though it’s coming through Skype, becomes useful and can make a dissidents expenses significantly lower.
6. Tor is mostly child porn and drugs.
- Wrong. Most child porn and drugs deals occur through normal means. Currently, FaceBook is having extreme difficulty stomping out child pornography on their platform, and most drug dealers are too stupid/unimportant to bother using sophisticated privacy tools (the average drug dealer makes $24,000/yr and lives with their parents, according to Freakonomics).
Why I am a Supporter of Tor
While I strike some as an anti-privacy advocate simply due to my stances on many cryptocurrencies, I am not. In fact, because I’ve been critical of multibillion-dollar corporations and multimillion net-worth people, I have a very distinct understanding as to why anonymity and privacy are important. I don’t suffer from a fear of repression or revenge these days, but seeing how people put bounties on Bitfinex’ed’s head, kill journalists throughout the world daily, and silence entire ethnic groups, I see precisely why privacy tools — particularly free ones, like the Tor Browser — are necessary. Not for criminals, not for spies, not for the US government.
For people being silenced or censored in other countries. For those that want to report bad behavior securely and anonymously. For dissidents and refugees.
You, reading this now — you don’t need Tor. And neither do I. And hopefully we never do. But, just like Chinese citizens, or those in Iran, or North Korea, one day we might, which is why it doesn’t hurt to learn how to use Tor for good.
Stay skeptical, friends.