Web Surfers Anonymous

Opinion: Anonymity tools are making it easier for people to lay low as they surf online, but do you really need to remain anonymous?

A couple of years ago, i wrote a column defending the personal use of tools that help people stay anonymous while using the Internet.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read more about "Dont Fear Internet Anonymity Tools."

In that column, I made the argument that the potential positive uses of anonymity tools greatly outweighed their negative uses. Indeed, these tools can be used for nefarious purposes, but they also protect dissidents in oppressive countries, let journalists and law enforcement safely contact sources, and even make it possible for businesses to carry out anonymous competitive research.

There have been lots of recent developments, however, that make an even greater variety and number of people want to use the Internet more anonymously. Perfect examples are AOLs recent leaking of users personal search records and the news that ISPs and other technology companies are aiding in law enforcement surveillance.

In my recent column on the AOL search debacle, I mentioned one tool, Tor, that can help people use Internet services anonymously. I also mentioned Tor in that column from 2004, which was about the time that the tool was starting out.

/zimages/4/28571.gifRead more here about AOLs data spill.

Commercial anonymity products such as Anonymizer have been available for a few years. Free open-source options, however, have typically suffered from the double bugaboo of being too complex to set up and too slow to use for everyday Internet use. This was true of Tor when I originally looked at it and has long been true of the well-known anonymous network created by the Freenet Project.

Is it true now? Thankfully, it looks like the answer is "no."

In fact, my experience with Tor for the last few months has convinced me that these products are ready to be used by almost any Internet user, from tech gurus to somewhat-tech-savvy grandpas.

First, a quick refresh of how Tor works to protect your anonymity: It uses a technique called onion routing, which basically works by implementing numerous routers through which communications will pass. As data passes through the Tor network, each point knows only where the data is going and where it came from. As the network grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to trace a connections origin.

Using the tools available at tor.eff.org, I have been able to easily install Tor (along with the Privoxy secure Web proxy) and run it seamlessly without affecting my daily Web usage. One of the main reasons is that the Tor downloads include Vidalia, an easy-to-use GUI that made it simple to turn Tor on whenever I wanted to be more anonymous in my surfing.

Best of all, Ive seen very-little-to-no performance hit while Web surfing using Tor. Using the bundled Vidalia/Tor/Privoxy packages, which run on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux systems, I could easily set up any of my less tech-savvy friends and family.

As the Tor network becomes easier to use and more people begin to use it, it will become that much more effective and make it that much more difficult for oppressive regimes or sleazy companies to defeat it—the larger the onion network, the more layers that need to be dealt with.

Now, do regular, everyday people need to be anonymous all the time? Certainly not, and I wouldnt recommend leaving Tor on all the time or using it for things such as file sharing, which will eat up resources that might be needed by someone facing a more serious need for anonymity.

But, when Web surfing, there are times when youd rather not have others—such as your ISP, a commercial Web site or the government—know all the intimate details, whether youre a crime victim or a businessperson who wants to read up on the competitors new products. Tools such as Tor now make it possible for people to be anonymous when they need to be.

And for those who still say these tools are bad—that they will enable criminals and other evildoers to avoid the eyes of law enforcement—Ill just repeat what I said last time: The bad guys already have access to tools that hide their identity. And if products such as Tor become criminal, only criminals will have them.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis.com.

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