What is Tor, and Can it Help me Browse the Internet Anonymously?

Published Oct, 23 2013

In a recent post, we discussed how Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, offer remote access to private networks. They also provide a measure of Internet browsing privacy by masking your originating IP address, which can be used to link you to your location and browsing history. Yikes.

If you don’t need to access private networks with a VPN, there are still a number of free tools and services available that will help protect your privacy online.

Protect My Privacy from What?

Turns out, enormous amounts of information is routinely pieced together to create a profile about you that is then sold to the highest bidder. The New York Times did an interesting piece on the industry, called “Mapping, and Sharing, the Consumer Genome.” This information can be used to discriminate against consumers. It’s understandable if you thought all airline ticket prices were the same for everyone, but if you hopped over from Tiffany.com, it just might not be.

That’s just the legal use of your info. Lord knows what nefarious hackers would do with it, so it seems prudent to try to mitigate the risks of their acquiring it.

Free Tools to Help Protect Your Privacy Online

If a VPN isn’t for you, you can still browse anonymously by manually setting up a proxy in popular browsers. Here’s how:

For the less tech inclined, there are some free services for browsing via proxy:

Tor has layers!All of these proxies serve as go-betweens, or Proxy Gnomes, which help keep your your location and browsing activities safe from prying eyes. However, if you want to level-up and pretend you’re in a James Bond movie, or WarGames starring Matthew Broderick, then Tor is for you.

The privacy advocates at Tor are dedicated to helping you “defend yourself against network surveillance and traffic analysis.” Tor is based on proxies, except more of them are used to create a random, encrypted path from A to B. No “relay” along the way knows the complete path, so tracks are hidden.

I was skeptical at first of this Matrix-like community, but a quick look at their sponsors, including the US National Science Foundation, US Naval Research Laboratory, Google, and Human Rights Watch, among others, gave me confidence that I was in the right place.

Tor has developed the free Tor Browser that you can use to anonymously browse the Internet.

Here’s what it looks like when I just checked my IP address using the Tor Browser. Neat, right? Much as I might enjoy a trip to the Equator, that’s decidedly not where I am now.

A little bit off there.

These sorts of services do slow down your processing time, and for the free versions at least, you can forget video. However, if you are concerned about Internet privacy, or just like the idea of making it harder for companies to create dossiers on you, then Tor and its partners are great resources.

Do keep in mind that you have to change some of your browsing behaviors when using a Tor browser. The Tor download page details a few considerations you’ll want to take before making the switch.