If you would have thought Onion Routing involved wooden crates and flatbed trucks or maybe a sandwich order, you might be surprised to hear it’s actually an online security technology. Think of an onion’s layers: in Onion Routing, layers of encryption make it impossible to trace messages back to their point of origin. Once a secret project of the U.S. Naval Research Lab, it’s now the concern of the Tor Project, an open-source community devoted to developing Tor, the software implementation of second-generation Onion Routing technology, and to maintaining the Tor network.
The Firefox-based Tor Browser Bundle integrates the Tor network’s enhanced privacy and security. It includes the Vidalia network connection utility, but it’s much less fiddly than previous Tor implementations. Basically, the Tor Browser does it all for you. Both the Tor Browser and access to the Tor network are free.
We extracted and opened the Tor Browser, which includes the Vidalia Control Panel, a small dialog box for configuring and managing your connection to the Tor network. But the software did it all itself, connecting and opening the browser in a Tor start page. Though the browser uses a green globe icon, it’s basically Firefox 10 with Tor-specific features added to the toolbar. The Tor Browser’s extras include NoScript, which by default is set to Forbid Scripts Globally. The green onion icon is called the Torbutton; it’s the key to Tor’s features and settings. Its menu let us create a New Identity, open the Cookie Protections manager, and set the program’s Preferences on three tabs: Proxy, Security, and Display settings. The Security Settings offers by far the most choices, with eight submenus of options.
In use, we found the Tor Browser to be just like other Firefox clones. We know what you’re asking: did the Tor Browser slow down our surfing? Yes; there’s no doubt that some familiar pages loaded more slowly than usual. Was it annoying? Hardly. Most users will see similar slowdowns on a daily basis. Bottom line: the Tor Browser Bundle makes it easy to take advantage of Tor’s proven benefits.
Tor protects you against a common form of Internet surveillance known as “traffic analysis.” Traffic analysis can be used to infer who is talking to whom over a public network. Knowing the source and destination of your Internet traffic allows others to track your behavior and interests. This can impact your checkbook if, for example, an e-commerce site uses price discrimination based on your country or institution of origin. It can even threaten your job and physical safety by revealing who and where you are. For example, if you’re traveling abroad and you connect to your employer’s computers to check or send mail, you can inadvertently reveal your national origin and professional affiliation to anyone observing the network, even if the connection is encrypted.