Our worst dystopian nightmares are coming true, a new authoritarian age is upon us. Surveillance and tyranny have always been partners, today they are enabled by modern technology like never before. Privacy is more important than it has been in a long time. Fortunately the same fruits of science that facilitate tyranny can also be used to thwart it. And thwart it we must, nothing good ever comes from slipping carelessly into the hands of tyrants.
A common solution for staying anonymous online is to use a VPN. This is usually a commercial solution, and has its pros and cons. We won’t go into those here. Our preferred solution at WeAccuse is the free privacy tool Tor Browser. In addition to being free, the manner in which it obfuscates your identity online is unique and in some way more effective than other options. Even if you already have a VPN, you might consider using it as an alternative in some situations.
Your security and privacy isn’t guaranteed! Proceed at your own risk. Unless you are already anonymous / private (maybe you have a VPN, or are using another computer already on Tor), you will be downloading software before you are anonymized by it. That means the fact that you have downloaded this software is going to be on undesirable record. In most western countries this is not known to be an issue at this time, but we do not know the future. Things are changing fast. Once again proceed at your own risk (however, not proceeding is risky too!).
What is Tor Browser?
Tor Browser is a software bundle that contains a secured version of the open source browser Firefox, and the open source anonymizing network software known as Tor. Corporate black-box browsers like Microsoft Edge, Apple Safari and Google Chrome contain all kinds of surveillance technologies built into them. Even when they can be disabled — one can never be too sure one has gotten to them all due to their closed nature — it is difficult for regular users to do so. Tor stands for The Onion Router, which is a collaborative mechanism for obfuscating the users identity, activities and location by bouncing their requests around the world through thousands of computers. Onion routing and the browser together make a very effective online anonymizing tool.
Fig 1: How Tor Works
(Note: In our case the final link is encrypted too, because our blog runs on https)
Get and Install Tor Browser
For some level of confidence in safety and security Tor Browser should only be obtained from its official site. Desktop version is available for Mac, Windows and Linux. For mobile users Tor Project only provides official distribution for Android. IPhone users do not have an official option. There is an alternative called OnionBrowser available on the apple app store, however because we don’t know enough about it at this time, we can neither recommend nor discourage its use.
Desktop computers are the most likely devices used by authors and contributors to this site. To get the package for your desktop computers, proceed to Tor Project official distribution page, and download the relevant version for your particular operating system. Installation can be carried out in the usual manner specific to your OS. It is straightforward and works out-of-the-box. If you need step-by-step help, proceed to the following guides provided by the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
As stated earlier, Tor Project only provides distributions for Android. Moreover, the easy installation process requires Android users to get the software from Google Play Store. This means Google ends up with record of your having obtained the software, which can be a problem in some countries (like China). You can alternatively obtain the apk versions linked on the Tor Project page, however installing this will require you to disable security on your device, which is not recommended for novice users. If either of these caveats are acceptable to you, you can proceed to the Android download section on Tor Project site, and carry on as usual.
Using Tor Browser
First, to whatever degree Tor Browser provides anonymity, it does absolutely nothing outside of itself. If you have Tor Browser, any other software you use, such as another browser, your email app, any chat or voip software you might be using, none of it is protected through Tor (other software can be “torified,” but that is beyond the scope of this article). This is similar to VPN, which also only protects traffic that goes through it, and nothing else.
Secondly, be very careful with your other browsers. If you have another browser installed, and use it habitually, it is very easy to accidentally launch a non-torified browser, and go to a site you intended to visit privately. This once done cannot be reversed, the specific visit would have permanently leaked out of your wall of privacy. Of course future visits through Tor will still be protected, but that instance of carelessness is gone forever. If you are truly concerned, remove all other browsers on your computer, and make Tor Browser your only browser.
Finally, every once in a while you may get a warning popup from Tor that informs you if it suspects some site is doing something shady to track you. Do not ignore these warnings! If you are really unsure, quit the browser and get out!
Simply launch the browser from wherever you installed it, and you are good to go. There will be some delay as Tor network does its thing in the background, and something like the following will eventually show up (exact appearance may vary with versions):
Fig. 2: Tor Browser in Action.
From here you can carry on as usual. Note, Tor Browser is configure by default to use DuckDuckGo search engine. If you switch over to Google or any other search engine, for example by visiting it through the browser, you may lose some privacy. If you log into a google account even via the Tor Browser, you will lose most of your privacy. If you install any plugins or extensions into the browser, you will likely lose your privacy. Just be very conservative in what you do. Don’t change anything in the Tor Browser’s configuration, don’t install anything inside of it, don’t use any kind of personal information that gives away your true identity while using the Tor Browser, or you’ll defeat its purpose.
Identity / IP Change
Your IP address is your unique id on the net, through which you are fully known to your internet service provider. This address also leaves its prints on every site you visit, and can be easily tracked back to you. One of the primary features of Tor is that it obfuscates your IP address. Each time you launch your Tor Browser, you’ll get a new IP address, and hence a new identity. However, if the same browser has been running for a while, or for other reasons, you may want to deliberately change your IP address for extra safety and security. We recommend that you make a habit of doing so every so often. This can be done by clicking on “New Identity” item in the main menu shown below. Just like that your internet traffic will be routed through another random path, and nobody will be the wiser. You can also use the “New Tor Circuit for this Site” item to access a site you are on using a different IP.
Fig 3: Tor Browser Identity Change
Tor project has a metrics page that shows all kinds of interesting statistics on the Tor network. As of this writing there are nearly 2.5 million users using it every day. You can change the “source” dropdown to see how Tor is doing in your country. One very important feature of this metrics tool is that it shows possible censorship events occurring in your country — you’ll have to switch on the censorship event detector in the respective dropdown on that page. I found these statistics to be quite revealing for my country.
Check you IP Address
You can check your current IP address WhatIsMyIPAddress. Do this in your un-torified browser, and also in your Tor Browser. You can see where you are and where you appear to be through Tor. Try using the “New Identity” feature, and look up your IP address again (refresh the WhatIsMyIPAddress page in the Tor Browser). Magic presto, your IP address is different, and you likely appear to be arriving from a different country.