Tor Project creates safer Internet

Initiatives such as Tor that mask origins of Web traffic or online communications encourage safer Web experience, but also present potential for abuse, observers note.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

Web tools such as those provided by The Tor Project which help hide the origins of online communication and, thus, the identity of people participating, increase anonymity and security. Whether the good outweighs the bad here, though, is a "philosophical and moral question", says one observer.

According to The Tor Project, Tor was originally designed, implemented and deployed as a third-generation "onion routing project" of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, with the U.S. Navy in mind, to protect government communications. Usage has since spread to "normal people, journalists, law enforcement officers, activists, and many others…for a variety of purposes", noted its Web site.

Explaining further, Guillaume Lovet, senior manager of Fortinet's FortiGuard Labs Threat Response team, pointed out that the initial goal of Tor was to provide U.S. soldiers in potentially hostile environments with a tool that could "obfuscate the sites they are connecting to, such as the mail server of the Navy". This prevented their identities and activities from being revealed.

Lovet said in an e-mail: "From a pure security perspective, the ramifications are therefore very positive--it boils down to more privacy, which is a good thing."

Eric King, human rights and technology adviser at Privacy International, concurred. He told ZDNet Asia that The Tor Project is a "fantastic organization", working hard to provide tools that significantly raise the bar with regard to online security and privacy.

"It is especially important for Internet users living under repressive regimes, whose online interactions and visits to certain Web sites may be monitored by the state and used against them," King stated.

The adviser also noted that Tor does not fracture the Internet with another secret communications layer on top of the open Web. Rather, it is simply a tool that allows people to remain anonymous online.

"Anonymity is not only a core value of the digital age, it is a vital underpinning of the right to free speech," he said.

As with most things, though, Lovet pointed out that Tor has the potential to do good, and bad.

He explained that the tool raises some issues from an ethical perspective since potential criminals such as pedophiles would also benefit from the increased privacy, making it more difficult to track and apprehend them.

That said, whether the positives outweigh the negatives is a "philosophical and moral question", the Fortinet executive said.

From a security standpoint, Tor is a "very good thing" as it gives everyone access to greater privacy, not just the "tech-savvy bad guys", he noted.

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