Privacy Tech Toolkit: Tor

Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat!

A new year brings New Year resolutions. If you resolved to adopt better privacy practices and tools, you’re in luck! This week’s newsletter continues our exploration of the Privacy Tech Toolkit with the Tor browser and network.

Tor Basics

Tor enables users to anonymously browse and communicate online through two main parts. The first part is the Tor network, a worldwide network of servers. These servers serve as relays, sending encrypted information to randomly selected relays, masking the location of the user of the network. “Tor” stands for “the onion network” because this relay process resembles layers of an onion – each relay decrypts one layer of encryption and sends the rest off to the next relay for the next round of decryption. This routing masks both the source and destination locations of the online traffic. This is similar to a VPN in such that you can hide your actual location. The Electronic Freedom Foundation illustrates how the Tor network works with the following illustrations:

Three diagrams showing how Tor works. The first diagran shows the initial request to the tor directory server. The second diagram shows the random path through the tor relays to transmit the information. The third diagram shows a different relay path when the requester comes back to request the same information at a different time.

End-users can access the Tor network with the Tor browser. The browser is based on Firefox and comes with the NoScript plugin already installed. You can install the Tor Browser on all major operating systems as well as install the browser on a USB stick or SD card for when you are traveling or won’t have access to your computer.

Tor Considerations

Instead of accessing the internet through a single private network in the case of a VPN, Tor uses a distributed relay network that shifts your “location” every time you connect to the network. Tor is open source and is free to the public, but there are some considerations when choosing to use Tor for online browsing and communications:

  • Speed – the Tor network has more users than relays, as well as high user demand, which means slower browsing speeds on Tor than on other networks.
  • The Good and Bad of Blocking and Tor
    • Bad – some websites block the IP addresses of Tor exit relays (the last server in the relay chain). Those sites will need to be accessed outside of Tor. To add insult to injury, some sites block both Tor AND VPN access, making it near impossible to use those sites without having your location and activity wide open to those sites.
    • Good – because of the Tor network’s ability to route traffic through several relays worldwide, Tor can bypass government or other types of geo-blocks on certain websites, making Tor a necessity for those living in areas of the world that restrict access to the web.
  • Onion addresses – some websites, on the other hand, have onion addresses that can be accessed through the Tor browser. For example, you can access the BBC News website at https://www.bbcnewsv2vjtpsuy.onion/.
  • Anonymity – Tor provides an additional level of anonymity for online communications and browsing with the distributed relay network and browser; however, your actions can still give your location and identity away to third parties. If you log into a service that is connected to your real-world identity through Tor, then the site knows that it’s (most likely) you. Some users use Tor for specific purposes to avoid being identified while on Tor, staying away from logging into services connected to real-world identities. You can use Tor to search online without those searches being tied back to any accounts that are open in other browsers outside of Tor.

Tor @ Your Library

Some libraries include the Tor browser as part of the public computer image, while other libraries allow for patrons to install the Tor browser on the public computer (which then is wiped after the user session). Several libraries also advertise the option to run the Tor browser off of a USB stick to patrons who want to use Tor on public computers.

Several libraries are going beyond offering Tor access to public computers by becoming a relay, increasing the Tor network’s capacity to meet user demand. The Kilton Public Library in New Hampshire was the first public library in the US to host a Tor relay as part of the Library Freedom Project’s Tor Exit Relay Project. The project was not without controversy, but in the end, the public library was allowed to keep the relay.

Tor And Other Privacy Tools And Practices

If you need an anonymous way to browse the internet, Tor is one of your best bets. While some people opt to use both Tor and a VPN at the same time for additional security and privacy, most use one or the other when they need to have a private and secure way to browse and communicate online. Again, each tool has its strengths and weaknesses in protecting your privacy and choosing which one to use depends on your situation. Tor and VPNs are widely known tools, but there are many other tools to cover in our Privacy Tech Toolkit – stay tuned!

Thanks to subscriber Kristin Briney for the topic suggestion!

Privacy Tech Toolkit: VPNs

Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat!

Data breach and website hacking stories are (sadly) commonplace in the news. But what happens when the hack in question did not involve a single site, but your entire browsing history, complete with sensitive data, while you were logged into what was supposed to be a secure and private connection? With the recent breach with three VPN services – NordVPN, TorGuard, and Viking VPN – customers might be looking at that reality.

Some of you might be scratching your heads while reading the reports, though. Not everyone is familiar with VPNs, how they work, why they matter, and when you should use one. In this newsletter, we’ll cover the basics of VPNs, including how you can use them to protect your online privacy.

VPN Basics

A virtual private network (VPN) is a network of computers that provide access to the internet from a private network. Let’s use your work’s VPN service as an example. You are traveling with your work computer and you need to log into a work application. The problem is that the application can’t be accessed by computers outside the office. That’s where the work VPN comes in. You open your VPN client and log into the VPN service, creating a connection between your computer and the office server running the VPN service. This connection allows you to use the internet from that office server, making it appear that you are back in the office. Your computer can then access the work application now that the application thinks that your computer’s location is at the office and not in a hotel room.

Typically, the VPN connection is secure and encrypted, which makes VPN use essential for when you are connecting to public WIFI connections. Being able to change your location by using a server in another part of the world can also help protect privacy by placing you in a location other than the one you’re currently at. This comes in handy when trying to access sites that are geo-locked (sites that you cannot access outside of a certain geographical area, such as a country). Then there is the privacy component. A VPN can provide privacy protection for browsing history, current location, and web activity. Overall, VPNs can provide a secure and private space for you to browse the web away from those who want to track your every online move, be it some random person running Wireshark on a public network, your internet service provider looking for data for targeted advertising purposes, or possibly even the government (depending on your location).

VPN Considerations

A private and secure connection to the internet can protect online privacy, but as we found out last week, VPNs themselves are susceptible to breaches. This might cause some to wonder if VPNs are still a good choice in protecting online privacy. While VPNs are still an essential tool in the privacy toolkit, you still have to evaluate them like any other tool. There are some things to look for when choosing a VPN for work or personal use:

  • Encryption, protocols, and overall security – is the connection between your computer and the VPN server encrypted? You also have to consider the processes used in the actual creation of the tunnel between you and the VPN server. You might run across a lot of protocol terminology that is unfamiliar. NordVPN has a good post explaining various security protocols to help you wrap your head around VPN protocols.
  • Activity logs – is the VPN service keeping a log of activity on its servers? You might not know if your work VPN keeps a log of user activity, so it’s safer to use a separate VPN service than your work VPN for any personal use. No logs mean no record of your activity and your privacy remains intact.
  • Location – What server locations are available so you can access geo-blocked sites? Do you need your computer’s location to be at a specific IP address or location for work?
  • Price (for personal VPN use) – Never use a free VPN service. They are the most likely to log your activity as well as sell your data to third parties.

VPNs @ Your Library

Most likely you have access to a VPN service at work. While the technical aspects of work VPN are relegated to the IT and Systems departments, there is the question of who can use a VPN. Some libraries do not restrict VPN use to certain types of staff while other libraries only allow those who travel for work or do remote work to use VPN. A potential risk with work VPNs is when staff change roles or leave the organization. Auditing the list of users who have VPN access to the system will help mitigate the risk of unauthorized access to work systems by those who no longer should have access.

Your library provides internet access to patrons, so how do VPNs fit into all of this? First, we have WIFI access. Your library’s WIFI is a public network and patrons who want to protect their privacy might use a VPN to protect their privacy. Can your patrons use their VPN service while connected to the WIFI? Your desktop computers are another place where patrons are using a public network, but many public computers don’t allow patrons to install software, including VPN clients. There are ways to configure the public network to break the ties between one IP address and one computer, so web activity cannot be traced back to a single computer user based on IP alone.

VPNs And Other Tools In The Privacy Tech Toolkit

VPNs are just one way to protect your privacy online. There are many other ways you can protect privacy, including Tor and other types of proxy servers. Sometimes folks use multiple tools to protect their privacy; for example, some folks use both a VPN service and the Tor browser. Each tool has its strengths and weaknesses in protecting your privacy, and choosing which one to use depends on your situation. We’ll be covering other tools in the Privacy Tech Toolkit soon, so stay tuned!