By : Team 201 (Khushboo Gupta, Sejal Gupta, Twisha Bansal)
The Anonymity Network: Tor
It is a human trait to be fascinated by what we don’t already know, and in this era of the Internet, there is barely anything that we can’t look up by just typing it out in a search engine. Now, the matter of interest here is that the Internet itself has another face which is quite different from what it is known to be. The Internet as we use it everyday, is the Surface Web, where our identity and activity can be tracked and traced back to us. To break it down, if someone attempts to look you up at this very moment, they will know your real identity, your precise location, operating system, the browser you used and a lot of sensitive information that you probably didn’t have any intention to share. This is where the desire for anonymity comes into picture. The Tor browser protects our identity and privacy and provides a way to communicate anonymously over the internet, and the resulting advantage can be used in a lot of ways. Apart from the usual, Tor also enables us access to the Dark Web, which is the World Wide Web content that exists on darknets.
The name ‘Tor’ is derived from the acronym of the software project name ‘The Onion Router’. Tor was developed in the mid-1990s by United States Naval Research Laboratory employees, Mathematician Paul Syverson and Computer Scientists Michael G. Reed and David Goldschlag, with the purpose of protecting U.S. intelligence communications online. The alpha version of Tor, or the Tor project as it was called at that time, was launched in 2002 and was released publicly a year later. In 2004, the Naval Research Laboratory released the code for Tor under a free license and in December 2006, it became a non-profit organization called the Tor Project. Now, Tor is a free and open source software, available to the general public (neglecting the fact that it is illegal in some countries, for the time being).
The main reason why the US Navy made Tor publicly available was to transfer data securely. If it were the sole user of Tor, any information leaked would be a request by the US Navy. It would defeat the whole purpose of anonymity. Public availability of the browser and the claim for anonymity encouraged people to use it. Apart from the people engaging in illegal activities, there are whistleblowers, human rights activists and normal people who use the tor browser for the sake of anonymity. This highly decreases the chance of leakage of personal or any form of private information and the US Navy could hide behind the large mass of people using the network. In simple words, more people using the system makes it all the more difficult to distinguish the government’s messages from the general noise.
Tor secures the connection with three layers of encryption and passes it through three voluntarily operated servers around the world. Infact, the ‘onion’ in ‘The Onion Router’ comes from the analogy of these layers being like those of an onion. The volunteer systems are known as relays. There are three types of relays in the Tor circuit, the entry relay, middle relay and the exit relay. The entry relay is the first node of the circuit and also the only one which knows the true IP address of the user. The middle relay is the one between the entry and the exit relay. The exit relay is the last node of the circuit.
The data is encrypted before it enters the Tor network through an entry relay, followed by a randomly selected middle relay. The traffic that bounces through the middle relay is completely untraceable as it does not retain any records. Only some part of the traffic is decrypted. Then the traffic enters the exit relay. Every relay only has the information of the previous and the next relay. Rest of the path remains unknown to each relay. Thus, the activity request going through the Tor circuit is completely encrypted. That is how anonymity is ensured.
Since the IP address of the sender and that of the recipient do not appear together, unencrypted along the circuit at any relay, anyone eavesdropping at any point along the communication channel cannot directly identify both ends. Furthermore, to the recipient it appears that the last exit relay, rather than the sender, is the originator of the communication.
Tor protects the data against corporate or government targeted and mass surveillance. Perhaps you live in an oppressive country which tries to control and surveill the internet, or you don’t want big corporations taking advantage of your personal information, Tor makes all of it’s users look the same which confuses the servers and makes the users anonymous. By using Tor, you can bypass the censorship without the censor knowing what you do on the internet. The sites you visit won’t even know who you are or from which part of the world you’re visiting.
57% of all activity using Tor is illicit. Tor can be used for unauthorized news leaks of sensitive information, distribution of illegal sexual content, selling controlled substances, weapons, and stolen credit card numbers, money laundering, identity theft and the exchange of counterfeit currency. But that is not at all the purpose it is meant to serve. It is the world’s strongest tool for privacy and freedom online. People additionally use Tor for socially touchy correspondence: talk rooms and web discussions for assault and misuse survivors, or individuals with ailments, or to circumvent laws against criticism of heads of state. It actually helps a lot of people who need anonymity, like bloggers, journalists and activists.Another function of Tor is that it is a gateway to the dark web. Dark web is the part of the internet which isn’t indexed by search engines, uses masked IP addresses and requires specific authorisations or configurations to access.
The Tor browser can be downloaded from the official Tor website: https://www.torproject.org/. Once the Tor browser has been downloaded and installed ,one can browse Tor just like any other usual browser. While some can simply install and use the Tor browser like any other, there are a few complications in countries where Tor is blocked, like in corporate or university networks where it’s banned, or where more security is needed. When a session is started, one sees an option to Connect or Configure. The latter choice is for when access to the Tor network is blocked, and then a variety of circumvention techniques will be shown. Those include traffic obfuscation tools called pluggable transports, which make it look like Tor traffic is random or going to major websites such as Amazon, rather than connecting to the onion network.
Tor, because of its layer-like data distribution structure, runs extremely slowly. One even struggles to watch streaming media content. Thus, Tor quite a few times has inadequate performance. Tor has a very high startup time. User’s data while using Tor is prone to vulnerability, hence, a separate VPN is required for encryption, which further slows average transfer times. There have been several instances where Tor has shown security flaws. Information is delivered anonymously, but the browser software contains vulnerabilities, especially when viewing HTTP sites rather than encrypted HTTPS ones. Apart from this, using Tor also draws attention to you and makes you a potential target for the Government. Infact, Edward Snowden released information on the NSA’s PRISM program to news organizations via Tor. However, a growing number of people around the world are installing Tor as a second web browser, as public awareness of issues like tracking and data reselling has increased in recent times.
The basic and most striking difference between Tor and VPN is that Tor emphasizes “anonymity” and VPN emphasizes “privacy”. The two notions have some aspects in common but they’re not the same. In layman terms, Tor hides “who you are” and VPN hides “what you do”. Tor is decentralised and completely free to use whereas VPN is centralised – often owned by private companies and costs money. As an individual using VPN, one has to trust the companies providing the service for they might track our activity. A lot of websites can track if a user is using a Tor browser and block the traffic since a large amount of illegal activities happen with the use of the same, whereas most services online cannot distinguish between a normal IP address and one provided by a good VPN. Tor is not compatible with all kinds of devices whereas VPN is.
There are a few things one should keep in mind while using Tor. If one does not adhere to best practises, they can expose themselves to vulnerabilities and are at a higher risk of compromising the privacy of their device. Tor will encrypt data as it passes through the Tor network, but the encryption of traffic between the final Tor relay and the destination site depends upon that website. One is advised to visit only those websites that use Hypertext Transfer Protocol or HTTPS. The Tor Browser blocks many plugins, such as Flash, RealPlayer, and QuickTime. These plugins can be manipulated into exposing one’s IP address in ways that Tor cannot prevent. One very important insight is that Tor will not protect one’s privacy from a website they sign in to. Once a person signs in, they identify themselves to that website and anyone who might be observing the activity on that site. One should also know that only Tor’s Internet traffic will be routed through Tor. Other apps on their devices will still connect normally to the Internet and hence, expose the real IP address.
Bibliography and References
● https://portswigger.net/daily-swig/tor-security-everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-a nonymity-network
● https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWII85UlzKw&feature=youtu.be&list=PLwyU2dZ3LJ Ertu3GGElIa7VyORE2B6H1H
● https://security.stackexchange.com/questions/153542/why-did-the-government-made- project-tor public#:~:text=Making%20TOR%20public%20also%20meant,use%20it%20for %20secure%20communication.