YOU PROBABLY KNOW about the digital anonymity service Tor, but for whatever reason you may not actually use it. Maybe between the nodes, traffic rerouting, and special onion URLs it seems too confusing to be worth the effort.
In truth, Tor has been relatively accessible for years now, largely because of the Tor Browser, which works almost exactly like a regular browser and does all the complicated stuff for you in the background. But in 2018 a slew of new offerings and integrations vastly expanded the available tools, making 2019 the year to finally try Tor. You may even end up using the network without realizing it.
“At the end of the day for Tor what we hope is that our technology becomes underlying, and everything else that happens online happens on top of it,” says Isabela Bagueros, executive director of the Tor Project. “Seeing interest and adoption from for-profit companies and other organizations is a very interesting moment for us, because we are creating different examples to show how our vision can be possible.”
Tor’s primary benefit, for the uninitiated: It encrypts your traffic and bounces it through a chain of computers, making it very difficult for anyone to track where it came from. You can see how easy access to an anonymized services like that might come in handy when you’re working on anything from job hunting to political organizing.
This year, it became easier than ever to do so on Android, with the introduction of Tor Browser for Android. The platform first debuted in September and is still being tested, but is now close to its final, stable release. You can download it on Google Play or directly from the Tor Project. There are also some Tor options for iOS, including an app called Onion Browser, but the Tor Project doesn’t currently have its own offering. Being able to access Tor on mobile is increasingly important, as more and more browsing shifts to smartphones.
Tor on desktop has gotten new options as well. The privacy-focused browser Brave added Tor routing in June as an option for its tabs. Brave makes it easy to have some tabs that are running Tor and others that aren’t, letting you do all of your browsing side by side. In Brave you simply navigate to the File menu and choose “New Private Tab with Tor,” or flip a Tor switch after you launch a new private tab, to add the protection.
“A Brave Private Window with Tor keeps the user history secret from other people who may be using the computer, but also makes it more difficult for ISPs, employers, or guest Wi-Fi providers to track which websites a user visits,” Brave said in a statement. “We’re getting great feedback from users…[and] we’re also adding more Tor functionality in Brave.”
Brave’s integration options are convenient. And the Tor Project’s Bagueros says that Brave has so far shown strong commitment to evolving its Tor implementation to be increasingly secure. While people could just use the official Tor Browser for maximum protection—something even Brave itself recommends “for users who require leakproof privacy”—Bagueros says the goal is to foster as many implementations as possible to make Tor more accessible. “We don’t want to be the only browser,” she says. “If there are 20,000 browsers doing the same thing we don’t mind. We think that’s great.”
Other types of Tor integrations relate to creating infrastructure so that people’s browsing can opportunistically route over the Tor network and have stronger anonymity protections. Facebook—which has run an “onion service” since 2014 to make connecting to Facebook on Tor even more secure—expanded its offerings in November to make them faster and more efficient. The improvement was also aimed at making it easier for Tor users to access the most secure version of Facebook from within a platform like Tor Browser without having to remember a special onion URL.
Content delivery network and internet infrastructure provider Cloudflare also launched an onion service in September that makes it easier to access the most secure versions of its client sites on Tor. Through its new setup, Cloudflare helps to extend protections on user anonymity without knowing anyone’s identity, even on its own service. “If we can make it easier for more people to use Tor that’s great,” says Matthew Prince, Cloudflare’s CEO. “Other platforms can support this to get an advanced level of security for their users.” Cloudflare’s Tor integration is also set up to more accurately separate legitimate Tor traffic from malicious activity, by making it more costly for hackers to mount attacks without undermining anonymity protections for legitimate users.
With all this new private industry collaboration, the Tor Project’s Bagueros says she thinks that more people will start using the service and be able to integrate it into their lives. The Tor Project has been working on ways to scale more efficiently in anticipation of eventually needing to meet this higher demand. But it also remains focused on the core concept of Tor as a distributed and decentralized network. “We don’t want any corporations to own a big part of the network,” Bagueros says. “So we educate them on how many servers are okay for them to pitch in and if they want to add more they can donate to different nonprofits who run relays so they can still increase the network that way.”
The vision of Tor as the underpinning of the entire internet is still probably a long way off, if it can ever happen at all. But the options available to access the Tor network and use it more easily are rapidly expanding. This is the year to try them out.