New Tor Browser Is Surprisingly Polished
I don't spend much time behind Web proxies, but news of the latest privacy-focused Tor browser caught my eye, so I installed it and spent a couple of hours wandering through the Tor network. It was an interesting and surprisingly non-geeky sojourn! Here's what you need to know about the Tor network and web browser…
Tor Browser Gets a Facelift
For the uninitiated: Tor is a decentralized, global network of anonymous proxy servers. Each node in Tor acts much like a VPN (virtual private network) server. It accepts your browser’s requests for Web content, connects to the server(s) on which the objects reside, downloads copies and transmits them to your browser. The Tor node acts as your proxy; hence the term “proxy server.” The benefit of Tor is that the remote server does not get any data about you, since you never connect to the remote server; a Tor node does that on your behalf.
However, it is theoretically possible to backtrack the node’s request to see where it actually originated. To frustrate such espionage, Tor routes your browser’s requests and the data sent in response to them through multiple nodes, forcing a really interested party to repeat the backtracking process multiple times. It’s like peeling off layer after layer from an onion. But with proxy network used by Tor makes it very difficult to do that backtracking. More on that later.
There are many good reasons to use Tor, but some of them are bad. Tor provides cover for activists, journalists, authors, and others whom a repressive government might want to track down or merely associate with certain “forbidden” content on the Web. On the other hand, Tor also covers the tracks of illegal arms and drug dealers, child traffickers, and copyright violators, and other nefarious malefactors.
But that’s not us, right? We are going about lawful business using a network that runs through parts of the world where privacy is banned, or where additional layers are desired. The journey goes surprisingly well!
The Tor browser is based upon Firefox, and the Tor Project team is a loose coalition of part-time developers. That explains why Tor Browser 8.0 appears to catch up to Firefox Quantum 10 months after the latter’s release. You can download Tor 8.0 here. Installation is a breeze!
I did have one glitch when trying to launch the Tor browser. PC Matic uses a whitelist approach to prevent malware from running, which means that if it's not on a list of known/good programs, it will be blocked. (See my recent article PC Matic - An Overdue Review for a discussion of whitelist and blacklist approaches to security.) So PC Matic's SuperShield flagged the program as "unknown" and prevented it from running. I solved that problem by changing my protection level setting for blocked programs to "Prompt for Override." If you use a different anti-malware program, and Tor won't start, there's probably a similar fix you can find with a quick Web search.
Pirates, Rabbit Holes, and Latency
Thinking of “sketchy sites to check out with Tor” led me first to The Pirate Bay. (In case you're not familiar, TPB is described by Wikipedia as "an online index of entertainment media and software." That's a polite way of saying that it's a search engine for pirated movies and music.) I got a 502 error: “bad gateway.” That means the Tor server (in Paris) that tried to connect me to TPB received an invalid response from the TPB web server. There is nothing I, the end user, can do to fix a 502 error; the owner of the TPB server (or one of the proxies along the path) is on the fritz. Solution: I tried again later, and it worked.
But first, I tried to reach TPB via my Chrome browser, and I had no trouble getting to it! I start Googling, then realize I don’t need any stolen copyrighted material today so there is no need for me to go down that rabbit hole. But if there was, the answer is out there. I would start with the Tor Project’s FAQ page.
Elsewhere on the Internet, Tor 8.0 mostly behaves well, but slowly. Speedtest.net (after several attempts) reports Tor 8.0’s download speed as 2.71 Mbps with a 300 ms latency. The same test a moment later but using Chrome yields 210 Mbps with 10 ms latency. In my testing, some sites that work just fine in Chrome, Edge or Firefox failed to load, or loaded partially with the Tor browser. In most cases, reloading solved the problem.
Pages load significantly more slowly via Tor than they do over the regular Internet. I get a bit impatient waiting for the last bit of a page to load, perhaps as long as 45 seconds after the first bit arrived. But YouTube audio and video files play just fine on Tor; there is no choppiness. Download speed is not the problem; that 300 ms latency is. Once a video file starts streaming it does so continuously at an adequate 2.71 Mbps. But a web page that fetches content from 15 different sources takes 0.3 x 15 = 5 seconds longer to load due to the 300 ms latency of each fetching. The delay might be reduced if Tor 8.0 downloads pages via multiple parallel connections, but that does not seem to be the case in my experience.
It's also worth noting that the Tor developers recommend against installing Firefox add-ons with Tor Browser, because some add-ons can bypass proxy settings and break anonymity.
So for browsing the mainstream Internet, the Firefox-based Tor 8.0 browser is easy to use and provides considerable anonymity, meaning it would be extraordinarily expensive to figure out who is behind Tor’s hypothetical seven proxies. If it takes 100 years to do it, you have effectively complete anonymity; you will likely die long before the jackbooted thugs come knocking on your door.
I don’t live in China, Russia, or Saudi Arabia, have no plans to join a covert resistance movement, and a life of crime does not appeal to me. But if anything should change it’s great to know that Tor is available to cover my tracks, and that it works so well. Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 2 Oct 2018
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