We live in the age of information and big data, spurred on by our growing internet use. The web has reshaped how we take in information, opened our eyes to new viewpoints, and connected the world more than ever before. Though approximately 62% of the world’s population uses the internet to access information for almost anything, many people don’t have the same liberties.
Countries, including Russia and Iran, actively censor their web networks and monitor the internet activity of their citizens. Turkmenistan — a dictator-led nation in Central Asia — has also upped its censorship, which now includes more than 122,000 censored domains. Even here in the US, companies and third parties track and have access to countless user data profiles that are at constant risk of exposure.
The web, though accessible, has become less free and private. We get convenience, unfortunately, at the expense of our freedom of privacy. But many people have taken a stand and work on the front lines to fight the war on digital privacy. A nonprofit called the Tor Project that maintains and develops a privacy-preserving network and applications entered the ranks long ago to battle surveillance and censorship to maximize user privacy.
“Our mission is to advance human rights and defend people’s online privacy through software and open networks. So the goal is always to offer a browsing experience to people that is as secure and private as possible,” said Pavel Zoneff, Director of Communications at Tor.
Since 2006, Tor has served as a nonprofit organization to offer a free, private web browser to defend users from surveillance and tracking online. Through its efforts, users can overcome internet restrictions, protect their anonymity, and enjoy an unrestricted free browsing experience no matter where they are. The Tor team uses technology, on-the-ground community work, and strategic partnerships to advance its mission of delivering a better internet for all.
Championing the Mission of Online Anonymity
Tor leverages a method called onion routing to route traffic through multiple servers and encrypts this traffic each step of the way. Similar to peeling an onion and finding a different layer at each tear, this multilayered encryption technique is what gives Tor its name — the onion router. Tor Browser also resists fingerprinting, which enables users to look the same and remain anonymous online. But its technology is not the only way Tor makes a stamp in the digital privacy battle.
“In addition to supporting and maintaining the software and all of our services, we also have the human component, which is providing community support,” said Pavel.
Tor has a dedicated anti-censorship team that acts as the first line of defense for activists, community organizers, or individuals seeking to challenge the current business model of the internet. But its main goal is accessibility. So Tor is useful for many different types of internet users, including activists, businesses, and private citizens.
“We’re all filtering it through our core service offering, which is anonymity and privacy. If you look at who can stand to benefit from anonymity and privacy-preserving technology, it’s these three groups,” said Pavel.
But Tor does differentiate its services according to threat models. Every user group leverages Tor for various reasons. Activists may need Tor to share information, organize, and be reachable to the masses without the risk of exposure. For businesses, Tor can be a solution within their network security toolkit.
“For private citizens, Tor is a way to avoid nonconsensual tracking and fight surveillance capitalism, which, coincidentally, is one of our biggest user groups. 81% of people that we have surveyed say the online privacy aspect is top of mind for them,” said Pavel.
Promoting the Importance of Privacy-First Mobile Experiences
Pavel said one of Tor’s greatest strengths is its decentralized nature, allowing it to avoid a single point of failure. “If one node gets compromised, there are many redundancies by default,” Pavel continued.
The decentralization of stakeholders also helps improve the effectiveness of its privacy-preserving technology. The more users leverage the platform, the more it becomes censorship resistant. For example, Tor’s anti-fingerprinting technology, which disguises user activity, works so well because many people use it.
“The more people that use privacy-preserving technologies, the more readily it is accessible and adopted globally, the better its effects for protecting those who are really at risk and vulnerable,” said Pavel.
In countries where the internet is less accessible, most users rely heavily on mobile devices to connect to the web. But this can also be said for more developed countries. Mobile has taken over and is the primary way many people access the internet.
“We’re seeing especially older handheld devices are increasingly used to access not just the internet but also the Tor network specifically. So the downward compatibility is an important area of focus for us, especially with Android devices, which are more widely adopted outside of the US,” said Pavel.
The Tor team is currently working on improving the mobile privacy experience for users. Pavel likened apps to a different form of browser that lives on a mobile device. Apps have become an instrument of surveillance and often track user activity.
“Even security-conscious people underestimate what an app truly is on their phone. So it helps us bring this conversation forward and add that layer of protection for people. Once we have that, we hope it also increases the adoption of Tor,” said Pavel.
An Open-Source Community Fights for the Right to Free Internet
Tor is an onion routing project that started in the humble confines of a university lab and became a nonprofit organization in 2006 to expand and support the maintenance and development of its network and applications. Since then, the organization has become more mission-driven, with a massive volunteer and open-source community behind it.
“We have roughly a little over 7,000 relays, which are volunteer-run servers, and close to over 2,500 bridges. So that brings us to close to 10,000 nodes. It’s thousands of people across the globe that are supporting or contributing to Tor, whether monetarily or with their time and services,” said Pavel.
Its anti-censorship team has also done much work to raise awareness and help countries with censored web networks. Through advocacy and outreach efforts, Tor has helped mobilize the masses for Iran and Russia. One prominent example of its work was the increasing adoption of Snowflake proxies during the protests in Iran.
“In Iran, with the protests sparked last fall, the government was trying to block access to social media sites. We took the learning we had from Russia. And within under a week, we went from roughly 30,000 people running Snowflake proxies to over 130,000,” said Pavel.
Through these Snowflake proxies, Tor made uncensored internet accessible to people in these regions. Snowflake proxies allow users living in free nations to transform their browser into a proxy, enabling users in oppressive countries to connect to the Tor network through their computers. In the end, Pavel shared a wider message about censorship and how we should all weigh the importance of protecting our right to digital privacy no matter where we live.
“Having free and open-source tools and a decentralized way of fighting back and reclaiming some of that power is very important. Because if we don’t resist, we’re subject to what somebody else does to us,” said Pavel.