Hiding your online identity: Trialling Tor in Cambodia

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Photo: flickr/WarzauWynn

Keeping your identity anonymous on the Internet can have major advantages. If you’re a political activist living in a country with a repressive regime, disguising your Internet identity might just keep you out of jail, and alive. Alternatively, if you’re a reporter working on a story your government doesn’t approve of, surfing anonymously can help you bypass your country’s censorship or filters.

One of the best known and easy-to-use systems for doing this is Tor. But Tor has some disadvantages – many complain it slows down their surfing. So what happens when you use it somewhere that already has slow internet?

Journalist Kyle James takes Tor on a test drive in Cambodia.

What is Tor?

Originally an acronym for “The Onion Router,” Tor works by using a software bundle and an open network of internet relays strung around the world.

Tor was originally developed by US Navy researchers and its primary purpose was to protect government communications. Today it’s used by everyday people, activists, law enforcement officials, and, of course, journalists who want to escape prying eyes on the Internet. Reporters without Borders recommend Tor as part of their Online Survival Kit.

How does Tor work?

tor logoThe “onion” part of the acronym refers to the many layers that Tor directs your internet traffic through to keep it hidden. Those “layers” are the more than 4,500 relays run by volunteers around the world.

Tor keeps your surfing secret by bundling internet data into a packet and encrypting it several times. Then the packet is randomly bounced among the relays, each link in this circuitous chain knowing only about the link before and after it. It’s been compared to a person taking a roundabout way along city streets to shake a pursuer. (For more information on how Tor works, see here.)

Tor Chart 2This method conceals a user’s location and usage from network surveillance and traffic analysis efforts. The Tor software will make it difficult, if not completely impossible, for people to see your webmail, search history, social media posts or other online activity. They also won’t see what country you’re in or get an IP address.

Needless to say, such privacy can be very useful for journalists

Installing Tor

For such a complicated system, Tor is remarkably easy to install and use. Your author, no tech genius himself, simply went to the Tor Project page and downloaded the Tor Browser Bundle. It’s available for Windows, Mac, Linux and Android devices.

iPhone users can use it, but it’s a bit more complicated to get it set up.

The Tor bundle contains a version of Firefox which you use just like an ordinary web browser but this particular version is preconfigured to send traffic through the Tor network. You don’t need to configure your own system, change lines or code or have any more technical knowledge than simply knowing how to download basic software.

NOTE – I did have to disable Gatekeeper on my Mac since it identified Tor as an “unidentified developer” and initially refused the download. I went into my Mac’s Security & Privacy settings and told it to accept the program. Since I was downloading from the actual Tor site, I felt fine doing this.  

The Tor Project offers videos showing installation for Windows, Mac and Linux. Or check out this video for Mac installation or this one for Windows.

Surfing in Secret

Vidalia control panel

Once installed, you’ll see the Vidalia control panel, which controls the Tor software. Here is where you start and stop Tor, set yourself up as a relay, look at the network, change your identity and a bunch of other things.

I simply hit the start button and my specially configured browser popped up.

I was ready to surf in secret.

The biggest reported drawback with Tor is that surfing can get very sluggish, and the World Wide Web becomes the World Wide Wait. That’s due to traffic having to jump through at least three relays and it’s the price you pay for anonymity. As more users sign up, the problem is evidently getting worse. Tor is aware of the issue, releasing a troubleshooting guide a while back.

browser congratulations

For people who already have fast internet connections, the difference in speed that Tor makes might be very noticeable and very frustrating. But here in Cambodia, my connection speed is pretty mediocre on a good day. So for me, the difference was negligible. Although, admittedly I wasn’t accessing a lot of audio and video, mainly since Flash is disabled with the Tor browser on installation.

Surfing the web with and without Tor, I compared 12 sites that I visit often – both Cambodian ones and ones based the other side of the world. I found that a few of them did load more slowly using Tor but it wasn’t at all as slow as I’d feared.

Some sites that took around three seconds to appear using my normal browser took five or six seconds using Tor. This wasn’t enough to send me jumping out of a window. In fact, some pages seemed to load just as quickly as they always did. Happy day!

Tor also successfully hid my IP address. With my regular browser, I opened geoiptool.com which identified my location. But using the Tor browser, it thought I was in Germany, almost half a world away. If you want to appear to be in a specific country, this video tells you how to use the Tor software to do that.

Overall, I experienced very few problems using Tor. Occasionally when I opened a new tab to do a Google search, I was asked to enter a series of numbers and letters to prove I wasn’t a robot. This was only a small inconvenience.

As I mentioned above, Flash, Quick Time and JavaScript-based plugins are disabled, since they can reveal your IP address. That means YouTube and a lot of audio and video elements of other sites won’t work, although there are workarounds for Windows and similar ones for Mac users.

What journalists should know

Tor is not 100 percent secure and it cannot guarantee absolute anonymity. Very smart hackers and investigators can sometimes connect the dots. In October, the administrator of the underground illegal drug marketplace Silk Road, which could only be accessed through Tor, was arrested by the FBI after an extensive investigation.

As the Tor website points out, users will need to change some behaviors if they want to be really secure – such as always using the Tor browser, not installing or enabling browser plugins, using HTTPS versions of sites and not opening documents downloaded through Tor while you’re online.

Some also say Tor users attract more attention from authorities because governments are more suspicious of people who use the network.

As long as you keep these things in mind, Tor is an excellent option for journalists, dissidents and others interested in online privacy.

Operating Systems: Windows, Mac, Linux, Android

Cost: Free

Languages: English, Arabic, German, Spanish, Farsi, French, Italian, Korean, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Vietnamese, Chinese

Technical knowledge needed: Minimal. Easy installation. Operates on a modified Firefox browser.

Author: Kyle James