By Caroline Strickland
Tech & Innovation Writer
The idea of anonymity today is practically unfathomable. Humans are, by nature, compelled to control their ecosystems and the ecosystems they interact with. We have been doing so since trade first began thousands of years ago when receipts were carved into clay. However, the history of record-keeping has never been so precise and intimate as it is today. Every second of everyday, millions of people are self-documenting their lives on social media.
Until recently, I only chuckled when I saw an advertisement on Facebook, Youtube, or Twitter for a product or service I had been searching for a minute ago. It was only a little magic trick! There was nothing to be read into; it was just a little advertisement I was scrolling past. . . right? Well, no. The fact is, every keystroke anyone makes adds but another detail to the surprisingly accurate profile we create of ourselves online. Data is aggregated from one’s activity at every turn, in essence creating a “portrait” of the user that is collected and used by companies, government agencies, and third parties. A classic example of just how accurate these readings are is the story of Target breaking the news of a teenage girl’s pregnancy to the family by sending them a targeted advertisement for baby food and diapers. Had the girl gone and bought supplies for a baby yet? No, but she had searched for it online.
There are a shocking number of articles to be read on the subject, but this article concerns itself with data-aggregating countermeasures. In short, it concerns itself with the Tor Network. For all there is to be heard about how undesirable it is to be open and exposed on the internet, there is little being said about how the everyday user can protect themselves and their information. Tor is one of the best publicly-available and free-to-use privacy measures available today. Essentially, it is an easily downloadable web browser that maintains its users’ anonymity through layers and layers of encryption. (Thus its logo is an onion. Clever, right?) The software was originally created by the U.S. Navy by manipulating the original coding of Firefox. Today its purpose is to allow users to send and receive private communication, browse the web without being tracked, and create software without being identified as the creator. For this reason, Tor is often associated with the Dark Net or the Deep Web, which are two different “areas” on the internet. While it is true that these areas can be accessed with Tor, the Tor Network is not a gateway into these domains, although it can be used for those purposes.
The Tor Network, run by the Tor Project, is a tool for anyone to browse any part of the internet with complete anonymity. One can continue to access sites like Google, Facebook, and YouTube, but with the added benefit of obscurity, as far as data collection is concerned.
There are some caveats to using the software. It’s important to remember that nothing is foolproof. However, a quick search on Google will yield results for common mistakes that first-time Tor users make that may reveal their identity to data-aggregators. Even so, using the software is a powerful step toward personal security and safety online.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, January 26th print edition.
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